Aussie filmmaker Fred Schepisi gave Steve Martin a wise nose in Roxanne (1987) and captured something essential about New York City in Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Those sharp, underrated instincts—so keen on class, gamesmanship and dislocated urbanity—are visible in the director’s latest, adapted from Patrick White’s esteemed 1973 novel set in suburban Sydney. Bristling with comic awkwardness, the movie sets up its splintered family dynamic with fine detail: Deteriorating matriarch Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) has multiple maids attending bedside to her makeup and wigs; her neurotic daughter, Dorothy (Judy Davis, still treasurable), and actor-son Basil (Geoffrey Rush) swoop in for the family fortune, cuffs dragging across plates of food, the good life a nostalgic memory.
Schepisi is deft with the social-strata stuff, introducing a large Gosford Park–like ensemble to tease out the central trio’s dysfunction. So it’s a shame that both book and film tilt away from the tart-tongued exchanges, giving increasing weight to a buried trauma that feels a little soggy. No spoilers here, but the title takes on a depressing literalness; you sense the movie teetering with tonal imbalance, its brilliant cast of savage line-readers forced to turn inward. Make no mistake, it’s a nightmare to consider a filmscape without the mature likes of Schepisi, always trying to smarten up the mainstream. But jazzy though his rhythms remain, he’s done a better job charting a course to sincerity.
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