As with any vivid, haunting dream, The Tender Hook exists in an otherworldly yet familiar place daubed with layers of chimeric colour, light and sound. Time lingers, reality is lucid and indistinct at the same time and the dream’s cast of characters are illusory beings edged with glamour, mystery and vulnerability.
Directed by New Zealand-born Jonathan Ogilvie, The Tender Hook is a love-triangle drama set in the boxing underworld of a stylised 1920s Sydney, the jazz age. It follows the story of Iris (Rose Byrne), a beautiful and wily opportunist who is mistress to McHeath (Hugo Weaving), a shady businessman from England who dabbles in boxing promotion and fancies himself a cabaret singer.
When Art (Matt Le Nevez), a headstrong young boxer, meets Iris at a boxing match they are immediately attracted to each other. Art becomes McHeath’s boxing protege but, as he and Iris fall in love, acts of jealousy, betrayal, violence and revenge tip the balance of power within the trio to fatal effect.
A glimpse of this building storm appears in The Tender Hook’s earliest scenes. Following hand-coloured archival footage of a bustling 1920s George Street and a half-built Sydney Harbour Bridge, the narrative begins surrounded by ghostly, rain-flecked mist as McHeath urges his henchmen, Ronnie (John Batchelor)and Donnie (Tyler Coppin), to throw a bound-and-gagged Art off a wooden bridge before Iris’s increasingly agitated gaze.
Just as Ronnie and Donnie swing the struggling Art in the air, the action moves to three months earlier and a white-tuxedoed McHeath in a boxing ring singing Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man to Iris in the auditorium’s front row.
Ogilvie, who also wrote the film, says that while The Tender Hook is set in the 1920s, he wanted the film to inhabit a cinematic world as opposed to a real time and space.
"I wanted to create this world, almost a microcosm, with the motif of the boxing ring, which is heavily floodlit but then, outside the ropes, everything drops away into darkness," he says. "I’ve applied that to the whole approach to the story and to how these people are interacting in this bubble of a small underworld kingdom.
"I didn’t want to make a true period film. I was interested in the idea of yester-now, which is a Miles Davis-ism, in the sense that, film being the ultimate time machine, we can watch it in 2008 and be transported into the 1920s but still have a foot in both camps if you like."
This effect is emphasised by McHeath singing Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan songs, by Chris Abrahams’s hypnotic musical compositions and by characters such as Iris and Art appearing within archival footage "beside long-dead pedestrians", as Ogilvie describes it.
Many props and costumes are contemporary such as an Akira Isogawa dress for Iris and Camper shoes used as boxing boots.
"I think there can be a danger of the glass-cabinet approach to the period film," Ogilvie says. "The reality is we don’t know what people really thought in the 1920s. We’ve got to presume they thought the same as us. For me, it’s almost disingenuous to try and capture it from any other way.
"The only way we can do it is to measure it from ourselves. My example is, and obviously millions of people disagree with me, is [1997’s] Titanic. They apparently went to great detail, ensuring all the props were authentic [down to] cutlery and yet I’m not getting any sense of authenticity in the interactions between the characters at all.
"You look at cowboy films of the 1970s and everyone is wearing ’70s-style outfits. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is a fantastic example of that. Those were the films that I always enjoyed, the period films that were quite playful with their sense of time."
In The Tender Hook, Ogilvie links postwar Sydney’s transforming 1920s period – a time when construction boomed, political parties were forming, women found more career opportunities and Australia was finding its own identity within the British Empire – to the slowly fracturing "family" relationship between the dominant McHeath and those that depend on him to survive: Iris, Ronnie, Donnie, Alby (Luke Carroll), an Aboriginal boxer in McHeath’s employ, and Daisy (Pia Miranda), who survives as a gangster’s moll.
"I like the metaphor that Sydney at the time is not quite bridged yet, there’s a question of which way it might go," Ogilvie says. "And so you have Ronnie and Donnie, the revolutionaries versus the monarchist, this political unrest within the group. Hopefully, people will recognise it as a wider context about Australia and where it sits in the empire."
The changing status of women in this period and the rise of notorious real-life 1920s underworld characters such as Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine is evident in Iris and Daisy’s steely efforts to maintain a life in such a glamorous, shadowy and violent world.
McHeath rules in terms of money and power and Iris makes herself indispensable to this manipulative yet vulnerable man, not least because he loves her. Daisy is forced to flit from Alby to Ronnie and Donnie with her affections to ensure her existence is necessary.
"Every character is trying to get ahead, everyone’s trying to survive and everyone’s trying to make it," Miranda says. "And they’re making it in an unusual way. You get the sense that they’re all on their own and that’s where they’ve found each other."
Miranda found inspiration for her character in a book of crime-scene photographs from an exhibition, City Of Shadows: Inner City Crime & Mayhem 1912-1948, at the Justice and Police Museum.
"Some of the women are incredible-looking," she says. "There were a lot of women who were in prison, lots of mugshots."
She read Bernice Bobs Her Hair,a 1920 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a wealthy girl desiring "society vampire" status and being tricked into getting a bob cut – outrageous at the time – and studied the life of American silent film actress Louise Brooks.
"She was a real renegade, feisty, pretty and promiscuous with a fire in her belly," she says. "I wanted Daisy not be too innocent. To have this drive underneath, not sinister but so you could see she had an agenda."
Miranda says she was also enthusiastic about Ogilvie and costume designer Cappi Ireland’s approach to the character’s dress style.
"I think putting on the costumes was probably my favourite part of the film," she says. "For one costume I wear in the boxing ring, Cappi bought some Elle MacPherson underwear and sewed on all this amazing vintage silver fringing. It was incredible, had a life of its own and had to be brushed every day. I wanted to steal it."