There is an extraordinary moment of catharsis at the heart of Archibald Prize-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton’s emotionally confronting but ultimately mesmeric debut feature Blaze. Filmed in her hometown of Sydney, it stars an incredible Julia Savage as the eponymous twelve-year-old protagonist. Her visually arresting interior life – lushly recreating Barton’s fantastical artwork via a combination of stop-animation and puppetry inserted into the live-action – is torn apart after she witnesses a brutal attack.
Orange is the New Black star Yael Stone delivers a soul-rending performance as Hannah. She’s cornered by Jake (Josh Lawson) in a cobbled laneway while attempting to leave after-work drinks. When his pleas to go home with her (they have some history) are brushed off politely, he rapidly turns terrifyingly aggressive.
The hellish scene that unfolds will be devastating to behold for anyone, especially those with a history of sexual assault. Depicted unflinchingly and without sensationalism, the horrific crime is traumatising for Blaze, who hides in the shadows and is implicitly protected by Hannah. The film also acknowledges, via intertitles, the appalling fact that in Australia, on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. One in three women have also experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man they know.
Barton may be a first-time feature director, also co-writing here with Huna Amweero, but she has a solid grip on complicated material. As an artist who has undergone trauma, she never loses sight of the possibility of healing through art. This astounding film thrums with her intricately joyful paintings and their almost cosmic, maternal energy. As Blaze retreats ever more into the imaginary world she conjures from the posters and ceramic animal trinkets that line her bedroom walls, the stop-animated and physical puppetry sequences, including a vast and glittering papier-mâché dragon, are mesmerising.
Blaze’s visions, accompanied by a soaring soundtrack that includes Nick Cave, The Flaming Lips and The Mouldy Peaches, may be fantastical, but they are utterly grounded in the very real healing process of Blaze’s young mind. Tragically, the source of her strength is also a source of friction with her well-meaning father, as played by The Mentalist star Simon Baker. He cannot understand the intensity of her visions and seeks psychological support as Blaze increasingly acts out.
Dragon imagery is also deployed during a jaw-dropping courtroom scene, during which Blaze must give her witness statement, exposing just how horrendously the legal system lets so many women down. All of this leads us to that decisive moment of catharsis.
Forced to check into a psychological facility that feels like a prison, Blaze, physically separated from her fantastical friends, meets tattooed counsellor Blossom, played with sublime tenderness by Bernie Van Tiel. When Blaze asks why it’s her that’s locked up and not Jake, an unjust wound gapes wide. But Blossom assures her that while her pain will live with her forever, sometimes imperceptible and sometimes crashing over her in overwhelming waves, it does not define her.
These words of wisdom are the perfect distillation of this profoundly generous film. It is, unquestionably, a tough watch, but Blaze is also empowering. A clarion call for survivors, Barton assures us that we are not who our abusers tried to make and break us. That healing can take many forms, including through art, and that by bearing witness, in whatever fashion, we can help bring about real change. It is a spectacular achievement hung on a remarkable performance by Savage. Like Barton’s startling artistic vision, Blaze is a masterpiece.
Blaze opened in USA cinemas on June 9, 2022, and had its Australian premiere at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival. It will be released in Australian cinemas from August 25.