British-born writer Patrick White remains Australia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet the country’s film industry has largely steered clear of his dense, challenging prose. This ambitiously faithful but turgid stab at his most celebrated novel suggests why: his taste for fragmented perspective and sensory detail translates stuffily to the screen, obscuring the emotional core of this deathbed drama. Fred Schepisi’s first film in nearly a decade has taken almost two years to reach the UK; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was far longer, given its sub-Jospeh Losey pretensions and doily-like styling.
At the centre of it, thankfully, is a tremendously moving performance by Judy Davis as the prodigal daughter of Charlotte Rampling’s dying, cantankerous matriarch. Returning home with her estranged brother (Geoffrey Rush), her intention is not only to secure her inheritance, but to lay to rest a queasy history of competition with her mother. While her co-stars are infected by the fussiness of the filmmaking, Davis brings profound pain and hilarity to the proceedings: the meat-coloured lipstick that streaks her face is practically an open wound.