Matt Ravier reports from the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. Three Blind Mice is a confident and extremely promising debut for writer-director Matthew Newton and a treasure trove of local talent, both fresh and firmly established.
Apart from seeing him on stage in Tom Stoppard’s excellent Rock ‘n Roll, I’m not overly familiar with actor Matthew Newton’s work, nor that of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps if I were from around here I’d understand better why so many seemed to want them to fail (perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments?). Many Australians seem to have a love-hate relationship with success. Is it that local audiences find it hard to recompense the work of clever, over-privileged white boys from the Eastern Suburbs? Rumour has it that amongst the five jury members, it was the three foreigners who pushed for the film to be awarded a special mention…
I found this tightly scripted semi-improvisational drama to be engrossing and ultimately quite moving. Clearly inspired by John Cassavettes (by way perhaps of Andrew Bujalski?), the film takes an old fashioned premise - three marines hitting the town for one last night before being shipped off to war - and makes it feel fresh and authentic thanks to vibrant, off-the-cuff dialogue and excitingly raw performances.
Unfolding over the course of one emotional night, the film follows three Royal Australian Navy soldiers as they attempt to get laid, bid goodbye to their city and make some sense of their life before it is put at risk in the Gulf.
Matthew Newton, Ewen Leslie and Toby Schmitz are excellent as the three buddies, allowing their characters - the party animal, the sensitive guy and the dark horse - to come of age over only a few hours without asking the audience to suspend disbelief. They are served by superbly written set pieces which come alive with the unadulterated spontaneity of authentic-sounding dialogue.
These exchanges, which occasionally overlap, randomly explode in blisteringly funny moments of dark comedy. Newton tackles some difficult personal issues with the lightest of touches. In this respect, he adopts a resolutely Australian tone, never too careful in his insistence not to take things too seriously.
Australian journalist and festival programmer Shane Danielsen had this to say about local competition entries Three Blind Mice and The Square:
“Though markedly dissimilar in style, what these two films shared was a fascination, bordering almost upon the forensic, with what it meant to be a man, and to live and act in a male-dominated world (…). For some of us, though, they offered hope that, after more than a decade in which Australian cinema - at least in its international manifestations - became synonymous with camp, caricature and superficiality, there was a willingness on the part of filmmakers to once again engage with something resembling real life, and to address actual human emotions. With nary a sequin or red velvet curtain in sight.”
Beyond this statement’s dubious undertones, I disagree with the implication that the unmentioned films alluded to here, in all their camp, sequined superficiality, weren’t also addressing notions of Australian masculinity, and engaging, under cover of spectacle, with the “actual human emotions” of this so-called “real life”.
Three Blind Mice wouldn’t know what to do with a velvet curtain, concerned as it is with the unadorned immediacy of the here and now. It’s a film about men coming to terms with their masculinity, sure, but first and foremost it’s a film about boys trying to find out what kind of decisions they want to be making as adults.
In any case there’s no disputing that the male protagonists of Three Blind Mice are recognizably Australian, and not very different from the blokes you and I may know and hang out with down the pub. Newton has given his characters depth without giving up their boy-next-door authenticity, and he’s given them complexity without compromising on their blokey nature.
We should be thankful for the energy and talent of Matthew Newton and his friends. A trip on the international festival circuit, where this kind of cinema is often taken a little more seriously than by Sydney’s cultural commentators, might wipe that smug smile off their face, but in the meantime they should be celebrating. This is the kind of Australian cinema we should get excited about.