May 4, 2014
The parallels between injured bird and flawed man work brilliantly in Healing.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Australian director Craig Monahan is working here with Alison Nisselle, who wrote ABC-TV’s Parer’s War along with Phoenix and Janus, the 1990s productions that still stand as two of the best crime series to screen on Australian television. This is her first feature film script and it’s terrific. A prison story with a twist, it’s set in the Victorian countryside and graced with moments of pastoral beauty, thanks to Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie.
Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving) is a prison officer-cum-caseworker at a minimum-security prison farm, a reformist institution where short-term prisoners and those nearing the end of their sentences are helped to ready themselves for life outside.
The story starts by introducing the usual stereotypes. Anthony Hayes’ Warren is a slimy bully with a little coterie of thugs on the lookout for their next target. Clean-cut Paul (Xavier Samuel), who killed somebody with his car while driving drunk, could easily become that target. Harder to classify is Don Hany’s burly, dour Viktor Khardem, an Iranian immigrant, who’s coming to the end of an 18-year sentence for murder. He doesn’t talk much, he has no visitors and he possesses a volatile temper. Nonetheless, Perry decides to trust him to run the farm’s new project. He and two other prisoners are to work with a local bird sanctuary, where they will care for injured raptors – eagles, hawks and owls – until the birds can be released.
You don’t have to look very far to see the parallels between the birds and their carers, but Monahan doesn’t labour the point, or anything else. He and Nisselle were inspired by a news story about a similar scheme operated by Prisons Victoria and the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, and the whole film hums with the kind of vitality you get from people who have a thorough understanding of the tale they want to tell.
The ensemble cast has a close rapport. As the tight little team of prison workers, Weaving, Tony Martin, Robert Taylor and Justine Clarke display the easy familiarity of people who have been colleagues for long enough to respect one another’s idiosyncrasies. And as the ranger from the bird sanctuary, Jane Menelaus behaves as if born to the job.
Finally, the parallels between injured bird and flawed man work brilliantly. There’s something very poignant in watching taciturn Viktor find delight in being fondly eyeballed by a happy raptor.