Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is one of those novels that a large number of Australians may have sitting on their bookshelves, but very few of them have actually read. So it’s a logical move to turn it into a film. Yet with the exception of 1978’s The Night, the Prowler, White’s work has largely been untouched by the film industry. Director Fred Schepisi returns to Australia for the first time since 1988’s Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark), perhaps proving in the process why White’s work is so difficult to adapt successfully to the screen.
In the exclusive Sydney suburbs around Centennial Park in the 1970s, the two children of dying matriarch Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling, Melancholia) return home. As expatriate son Basil (Geoffrey Rush, Green Lantern) and daughter Dorothy (Judy Davis, Marie Antoinette) await her impending death, she continues to exert a powerful influence over them both, and the nurses that attend her.
The Eye of the Storm is ostensibly a group of people from a privileged background who are each playing out their own private melodramas on screen. Whether intentional or not, each of the performances is over the top, recreating the garish Sydney of the 1970s, where Australia was culturally aware enough to recognise its own identity, but desperately trying to cover it up with the class of the European. This dichotomy comes out most strongly in Basil and Dorothy, and is perhaps where White’s satirical strain comes through the strongest. The hilariously exaggerated affectations of Basil in particular mark this as being less than “real”, and there are certainly elements of a fairy tale to this otherwise straight story. Yet like Shakespeare’s King Lear, which White was undoubtedly drawing from when he originally published the novel in 1973, it is the head of the family that is the most intriguing to explore. As her history begins to unravel, through fractured memories that latch on the storm of the title,
Schepisi’s film is beautiful to look at, lushly recreating a recent period in Australian history and lingering long on the details that make up the decaying values of the old world. A string of less-than-subtle shots of rotting banquets don’t so much slip in a bit of social commentary as whack you over the back of the head with it. Yet is is Ian Baker’s photography, continuing his long-standing collaboration with Schepisi that began with 1976’s The Devil’s Playground, that is the star here, filling our ocular cavities with one of the most beautifully shot Australian films in decades. This same beauty often serves as a barrier to deeper penetration, with the world depicted an often cold and sterile one. However, the impressively mounted cast carries this often difficult narrative over the finish line, it will either encourage you to dust off that copy of White’s novel or seek refuge in the higher cultural ground of Europe.