May 7, 2014
This prison movie from The Interview‘s Craig Monahan takes its time but eventually finds its wings.
Reviewer rating: Rating: 3 out of 5 star
There can be few prison movies gentler than Craig Monahan’s Healing, set at a low-security “transition centre” tucked away in the bush outside Melbourne. Television heartthrob Don Hany adopts a scruffy beard and a heavy accent to play Viktor Khadem, a surly Iranian migrant doing time for murder, who regains his humanity through a work program where inmates care for injured birds of prey.
The film could be taken for the worst kind of “inspirational” treacle. There are aerial montage sequences, a rhapsodic score by David Hirschfelder, and an array of crusty but soft-hearted characters, including Matt (Hugo Weaving), a warden grappling with a tragedy of his own.
It’s corny, certainly, but not entirely commonplace. Slowly but surely, the extremely gentle pace induces a sense of intimacy with the people and the setting, while leaving room for touches of dry Aussie humour. If Hany is a bit too charming to be a plausible hard case, Weaving gives one of his best performances, restraining his fidgety tendencies while maintaining a gruff, awkward manner that helps keep the sentiment palatable.
A gifted visual storyteller, Monahan makes ingenious use of the open-plan location to show how the characters relate to each other at a distance, the birds included. When Viktor temporarily parts ways with his beloved wedge-tail eagle Yasmine, she refuses to accept a substitute handler – gazing obsessively through the mesh of her enclosure to his distant figure on the horizon.
It hardly needs spelling out that Matt is Viktor’s “handler” in turn, though on reflection the metaphor is an odd one: Viktor in some sense has to be tamed, whereas Yasmine is meant to return to the wild and to the naturally violent business of hunting. Confusing things further, while Viktor’s guilt is not in question the circumstances surrounding his crime remain hazy – an elision that leaves you wondering how Monahan and co-writer Alison Nisselle arrived at the plot.
For instance, what is the point of giving the protagonist an Iranian background in a film seemingly designed (whether you take it as realism or wishful thinking) to demonstrate the wisdom and decency of the Australian justice system? Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions, Viktor’s story is inescapably shadowed by other stories Australian cinema seems unable to tackle directly – where prisoners are locked up for quite different reasons, in camps tucked much further out of sight.