May 8, 2014
Synopsis: Victor Khadem (Don Hany) has spent 18 years imprisoned for murder and is a broken man, estranged from his family and with no spark for life. For the final 12 months of his sentence he is sent to a low-security prison where prison officer Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving) oversees a special collaborative program with Healesville Sanctuary in which prisoners are given a chance at rehabilitating themselves by caring for injured birds of prey – eagles, owls and falcons. Amidst the usual prison politics, rivalries and resentments, Victor finds himself bonding with wedge-tailed eagle, Jasmine, and with encouragement from the compassionate prison staff, his life begins to change.
Like many of today’s strongest films, Healing is inspired by real life. Some years ago director Monahan and co-writer Alison Nisselle read an article about a partnership set up between Healesville Sanctuary and Prisons Victoria to run a Raptor Rehabilitation Program in which prisoners in the low-security facility of Won Wron Prison Farm took on all aspects of the care of the injured birds. They built aviaries, as well as feeding, cleaning, and bringing the birds back to health, sometimes involving a release back into the wild.
There is much to commend this film, Monahan’s third feature since The Interview in 1998 and Peaches in 2004. Perhaps most striking is the cinematography by Oscar-winner, Andrew Lesnie. Shot partly in the glorious Yarra Valley, the film’s look encompasses not only the mistily ethereal landscape of that place, but focuses intensely on the majesty of the birds, especially the eagle as it soars and plummets across the sky. Team this with David Hirschfelder’s haunting score and you get an impression of something that almost feels spiritual, so appropriate to this redemptive story.
Prison stories often focus on the evident negatives of the situation and sensationalize their characters to. In contrast, as its title indicates, issues of isolation, estrangement, and ultimately healing are prominent in Monahan’s film (whether in reality the staff would have been quite so amiable is a moot point).
Hany’s performance is compelling and it is remarkable that he successfully portrays someone so much older than his mere 40 years. Hany is a well-known face from his TV work but this transition to the large screen augers well for the talented actor. Supporting him is a strong cast of Australian notables. As a warder and de facto counsellor to the prisoners Weaving, who starred in both of Monahan’s previous films, brings tenderness to his role as Matt, a man carrying his own burden of personal tragedy. The other inmates are a mixed bag character-wise, but there is good development of each one and the acting is top-notch, especially notable being Victor’s room-mates, Shane (Mark Winter), a cocky youngster, and Paul (Xavier Samuel), a decent lad who did something really stupid while drunk. In smaller roles are Anthony Hayes, as Warren, the prison stand-over creep, Justine Clark as social worker Michelle, Jane Menelaus as Glynis, a bird-handler and Dimitri Baveas as Youssef, Victor’s son.
The director is not afraid to take his time, letting the story develop gradually. The shots of the birds, especially Jasmine, make us feel they are also their own characters, and the gradual magic that is woven between the men and their feathered friends, seen in many telling close-ups, is an intensely moving thing. The actual use of Healesville Sanctuary and the Spirits of the Sky bird show should do a great ambassadorial job for the facility, but it is ultimately the genuinely moving story of the healing power of nature and compassion that makes this a film a cut above the usual.