May 8, 2014
It flirts with tweeness, but this film about a friendship between a murderer and a wedge-tailed eagle takes flight, thanks to the sublime performance of Hugo Weaving
For a film industry as small and as unpredictable as Australia’s, where crops of quality titles come in waves and droughts can last for years, it’s particularly dispiriting when terrific productions slip under the radar.
Writer/director Craig Monahan’s riveting 1998 debut, The Interview, is a psychological crime drama in which a panicked suspect (Hugo Weaving) admits to murder then spectacularly reverses his confession, prompting interrogators – and the audience – to question whether he is a brilliant liar or just a halfwit. If any film could be considered Australia’s version ofThe Usual Suspects, it’s this.
Despite praise from critics, an excellent film and a promising new director went largely unnoticed. Monahan has made only two other features in the 16 years since: Peaches (2004), set around a fruit canning factory, and now Healing, set in a low-security prison facility in Won Wrong, Victoria. A sanctuary for injured raptors provides the setting for an innovative rehabilitation program and a fitting if obvious metaphor for the stories of troubled men getting control of their lives back.
Hugo Weaving stars in all three of Monahan’s movies. This time he’s on the right side of the law as a kind-hearted case worker, Matt Perry. Perry takes one inmate under his wing, so to speak: the Iranian tough guy Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) who is near the end of a 20-year sentence for murder. Viktor has a natural affinity with birds and heads up the new aviary for damaged eagles and owls, picking two inmates – Paul (Xavier Samuel) and Shane (Mark Leonard Winter) – to help him.
Viktor forms a friendship with Yasmine, a wedge-tailed eagle whose beautiful eyes symbolise the soul of the film. “If the two can tame each other, anything is possible,” reads Healing’s cheesy official synopsis. Monahan doesn’t quite lay it on that thick, but nor is his direction subtle.
The film is stocked with images of Yasmine spreading her wings and flying. Conspicuously placed between moments in which hard-bitten men grapple with prison politics and personal dilemmas, it’s blaringly obvious what Monahan (and co-screenwriter Alison Nisselle) is getting at. Broken wings/broken people; learning to fly again/learning to rehabilitate; finding freedom within a cage/setting yourself free, and so on.
It’s not easy to make a mature film about men dealing with emotions in ways that don’t feel laboured, clichéd or arbitrary, and there is an organic wholeheartedness to Healing that helps it avoid being twee, thanks in part to a clutch of strong performances.
Gorgeous cinematography from Oscar-winner Andrew Lesnie (who shot Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), which soaks up Victoria’s beatific bushlike surrounds, doesn’t hurt either.
A nasty thug who taunts Viktor, played by Anthony Hayes, is obviously written into the screenplay to provide menace, just as Won Wrong prison seems like a place where wide-eyed men play with cute and beautiful creatures. His character feels more like a function than a person, a way of drawing a line between troubled and terrible people and delivering comeuppance to the really bad guys. Such clear delineation belies the film’s emotional depth.
Weaving delivers a note-perfect performance as the prison guard whose big heart leads him closer to the duties of a social worker. Weaving, surely one of Australian cinema’s best assets, lifts scripts to dramatic heights other actors are incapable of reaching, which can both bolster supporting performances and make them look pale by comparison.
At its most simplistic, Healing feels like a glossy postcard drama, its pointy bits smoothed over by an unashamed sense of spirit and optimism. It is also a tender, thoughtful and inspiring film from an under-appreciated director.