Joe Cinque was killed in October 1997 when his girlfriend Anu Singh sedated him with Rohypnol before injecting Cinque with a lethal dose of heroin. The highly publicised Canberra trial gained greater infamy when writer Helen Garner made the trial the subject of her 2004 book Joe Cinque’s Consolation, one that takes on board Garner’s personal reactions along with finding some kind of natural justice for the victim. With this film adaptation, Cinque is given a new voice, while the public gets a chance for some new perspective on this continuously fascinating part of Australia’s criminal law history.
Dounoukos’ film removes Garner from the film completely, along with her distinctive narrative voice, by introducing us to the players at a much earlier point in the tale. Where Garner entered the story mid-trial, Sotiris Dounoukos and Matt Rubinstein’s script takes us back to the first meeting of Canberra law students Joe Cinque (Jerome Meyer) and Anu Singh (Maggie Naouri) in 1994. What unfolds on screen is a complex love story, a plot for murder and an intense character study, as we watch two people hurtle toward the inevitable.
There’s touchstones in JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION that will be familiar to anyone that has read Garner’s non-fiction account, from the haunting and darkly bizarre emergency call on that fateful October night, through to the graphic nature of Singh’s plans. Dounoukos and Rubinstein wisely recognise that Garner’s observations and interview attempts are part of a different story, coming in as she did at the mid-point of the trial, and one that has already been told. The screenwriters choose to focus their gaze primarily on Singh, and by using a far more linear narrative than Garner’s, they are unflinching in their attention.
Dounoukos’ film avoids the Singh family almost altogether, save for a few voices on a telephone, but instead attempts to come to a kind of understanding of how nobody seemed surprised by the actions in the final act. Singh was convicted of manslaughter owing to diminished responsibility, and Maggie Naouri spends much of the time demonstrating just how diminished she was. There’s something both broken and pathological to Naouri’s terrific performance as Singh, and for the briefest of moments, we can almost understand her complex layer of neuroses and body dysmorphia. Yet any early sympathies for Singh that the film might generate are counterbalanced by giving Cinque his strongest voice to date, with Jerome Meyer earnestly portraying Joe as desperate to help his Anu despite the advice of friends and family.
What the film does share with Garner’s book is the filmmaker’s stated intent of running the film as its own trial, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions in the same way Garner did. Through a series of observational vingettes, from the close-quartered intimacy of the bedroom to the surreal vibe of dinner parties where everyone seems involved, the audience becomes almost complicit in the act. We want to scream a warning, or try and shake some kind of sense into Singh’s accomplice and friend Madhavi Rao (Sacha Joseph). It’s a glimpse into the interrelated lives of students in Canberra, beautifully shot in all of its unerring rigidity, and it’s a collective explanation for the unrelatable.
If the title is drawn from the cold comfort Cinque might have received after his death, the “consolation” that the justice system could not provide, then the film of JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION does the same for a number of the other players. The important duo of Cinque’s parents (Gia Carides and Tony Nikolakopoulos) are briefly restored to the public eye as loving, rather than grieving, parents. Which is the greatest accomplishment of the film: rather than merely digging up a tragedy, it breathes new life into Joe Cinque himself.
JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION is playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival 28 July – 14 August 2016.
2016 | Australia | DIR: Sotiris Dounoukos | WRITER: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Rubinstein | CAST: Maggie Naouri, Jerome Meyer, Sacha Joseph, Gia Carides, Tony Nikolakopoulos | RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: Titan View (AUS) | RATING: ★★★★½