IT is 16 years since Craig Monahan made his Australian debut feature The Interview, a mysterious police drama that somehow managed to combine Franz Kafka with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Its star, Hugo Weaving, can be seen again in Healing , Monahan’s enchanting new film, due for release this week. There aren’t many actors who can upstage Weaving on his home ground. He gets top billing in Healing and turns in his usual accomplished performance. But he’s by no means the dominant personality. His co-stars are Don Hany, whom many will know from his work in television, and Yasmine, a beautiful dark creature with a funny nose and a most appealing personality. Yasmine doesn’t speak a word and is played by three stand-ins. But she pretty well steals the show.
Yasmine is a wedge-tailed eagle, and we know how filmmakers love birds. In Storm Boy, a key work of the 1970s Australian film renaissance, a pelican proved more appealing than the boy hero. Donald Duck and Tweetie Pie had millions of loyal fans, and who can forget Kes, or Run Wild, Run Free, or Dr Dolittle, or The Pigeon That Took Rome — to say nothing of that direst of Hitchcock fantasies, The Birds? In The Birdman of Alcatraz, Burt Lancaster found relief from the hardship of prison life by befriending a stray bird and studying ornithology. Healing, too, is set in a prison. Hany plays Viktor Khadem, a long-term prisoner of Iranian background whose sentence for manslaughter is coming to an end. To prepare him for a return to life on the outside, Viktor is transferred to Won Wron, a minimum-security “correctional facility” in rural Victoria, where he meets and falls in love with Yasmine.
Monahan’s screenplay (written with Alison Nisselle) was prompted by a true story. In 1998 — the year The Interview screened at Cannes — he read a newspaper report about a project for prisoner rehabilitation. Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary proposed to Victoria’s prison authorities that the inmates of nearby Won Wron be allowed to care for injured birds before returning them to the wild. Most injured birds were raptors — owls, eagles, falcons and other birds of prey.
Monahan’s film makes much of the parallels between caged birds and caged prisoners: between birds with injuries and men such as Viktor, crippled in mind and spirit. The idea that each species would help the other return to normal life may seem trite and improbable, but the Won Wron experiment seemed to work. Healing is a beautiful film, exploring notions of freedom and captivity, forgiveness and redemption, and the enduring bonds between humanity and the animal world.
Magnificently shot by Andrew Lesnie, with a fine, unassertive score by David Hirschfelder, the film opens with a languid shot of Yasmine in flight. She’s the real-life forerunner of the drone, mistress of all she surveys and deadly in attack. As someone observes: “You can watch her for an hour and not see her lift a wing.” Then, skimming low above a fence, she smashes into a post and breaks a wing. Supervised by Mr Perry, Weaving’s enthusiastic prison officer, Viktor and his fellow inmates set about clearing land and building aviaries. Yasmine is not their only patient. Paul (Xavier Samuel), a shy young prisoner estranged from his father, befriends an injured owl. Nor are birds the only pets. Shane (Mark Leonard Winter), nervous, eager to please and unfailingly polite to everyone, keeps a rat hidden in his clothing.
Hany’s commanding presence — grizzled, unkempt, angry, lonely and spurned by his family — makes him a stronger figure on screen than any of the men in authority. And what of his crime? Yes, he killed a man, but he insists it was an accident; and, surely, anyone whose heart is won over by a wedge-tailed eagle must be a bit of a softie underneath. There are lovely moments when he talks to Yasmine in Farsi. And when the bird is finally healed and released into the wild, the separation is as touching an anything in Bambi or Lassie Come Home.
That’s the trouble with animal pictures. Facile anthropomorphism and sentimentality tend to get the upper hand.
It’s the great strength of Monahan’s film that the emotions of the men, their personal dramas, are never relegated to secondary status, despite strong competition from the avian cast. It’s a film rich in ideas and vivid characters. Watching it is an exhilarating experience.
Limited national release on Thursday