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Australia 2002
Directed by
Ivan Sen
89 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Beneath Clouds

Synopsis: Lena (Dannielle Hall) leaves her small country town in New South Wales to find her father who she believes is in Sydney. Meanwhile, Vaughan (Damian Pitt), escaped from a prison farm is headed in the same direction. The two meet up and by force of circumstance travel together towards their goals.

It is perhaps unfortunate that writer/director Sen, a relatively recent graduate of the AFTRS, has made such an effective debut, as it has set the bar so high for subsequent efforts. But that's another story, for the time being let's appreciate our good fortune.

Beneath Clouds works on many levels - it is beautifully made, has excellent performances and tackles social issues at the same time as portraying the motion of inner feelings. The core theme is one of identity, in particular the identity of black people in a white society and the marginalisation and self-loathing that that implies. Sen clearly has first hand knowledge of the subject and feels deeply about it. His film depicts contemporary prejudice as alive and destructive as Schepisi did so effectively in The Chant of Jummie Blacksmith (1978).  But whereas Schepisi's protagonist was able to articulate his situation and grasp the possibility of an alternative, Sen's Vaughan is trapped by his circumstances, fatalistic and bitter with anger at the "whities" who have appropriated aboriginal custodianship and subverted it. It is Lena, his companion on the road, the part-white, part-Aboriginal,teen who is the thoughtful one and who has the ability to conceive of her life as her own. Not that she is free of anger, but she can conceive of something beyond, even if that is but a dream.

Dannielle Hall, who won Best New Talent at the Berlin International Film Festival, is truly remarkable as Lena, a tough nut implacably set upon her goal,which is to escape from the "shithole" of the town in which she lives and the people in it, for whom she has either contempt or pity. There are no fancy words here, in fact the dialogue is rudimentary, sometimes it seems in an almost exaggerated way. Most of the communcation is done silently, as Lena and Vaughan (Pitt is a fitting complement to Ms. Hall) engage in a battle of wills and perceptions that gradually draws them together. This is where the film really has effect.

Recalling Roeg's Walkabout (1971) this is a modest love story about two young people thrown together for a brief, intense time (it might also be usefully compared with Clara Law's 2001 misfire The Goddess of 1967). Not that Sen shares Roeg's fondness for large scale symbolism, but both films depict two souls testing each other's differences. Whereas in the Roeg film they never overcome their estrangement and their situation resolves in tragedy, Sen chooses a gentler option, perhaps just verging on the sentimental, though certainly not a rose-coloured one.

As good as this film is, you need to be patient with it. The torpor which is a fundamental part of the setting and the laconic dialogue between the two defensive protagonists tends to wear and the plot development and acting, from what I assume to be a largely non-professional supporting cast, at times seems a little forced. But set that aside for the central performances, the intelligent but non-didactic and economical exploration of its subject matter and the understated elegance of its filming that Sen, an unquestionably talented newcomer, has created for them.




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