The Australian Financial Review
September 13, 2008
One of the most horrirfying scenes in the new Australian film The Tender Hook involves a henchman having his Achilles tendon slit because he failed to protect a young boxer who needed protecting.
Blood suprts out and the victim screams in pain. But it’s mostly the thought of what it would feel like, and how it would cripple a person, that has the viewer cringing in his or her seat.
"You go too far," Iris tells McHeath, the man who ordered the cut, and one of her two suitors in the film.
"It’s called following through," McHeath clalmly replies.
The Tender Hook doesn’t feel like a particularly violent movie, but writer/director Jonathan Olgivie has woven some nicely grisly ideas aroudn the love triangle that sits at the film’s heart. A central motif in the film is a long strand of pearls, which viewers quickly work out must have come from the arms of another character, Hackett, who once worked on the pearl luggers for Iris’s father. Hackett had pearls implanted along the inside of each of his arms for "safe keeping", and when McHeath gives Iris a new pearl necklace, we know that Hackett has met his end.
Hugo Weaving, who plays the ruthless McHeath, can always be counted on to do a good baddie. It’s something to do with his use of silence, and the chilling allure of mysterious men for whom less words mean more. It’s not a stretch to imagine him slitting someone’s throat then moments later charming the waitress as he orders a cup of coffee.
"I like playing complex characters," Weaving concedes.
"What I found difficult was being aware of the archetypes but actually finding the human being underneath it all, finding what drives a person like this. He’s a businessman, an entrepreneur. He has a view that life’s a game, he enjoys the gamesmanship, but at the same time believes that you’re either a leader or a bleeder, and he won’t be a loser."
The 48-year-old Weaving is one of Australia’s more fortunate actors, able to stustain an international career while still living and working in Sydney. His low-key persona means he is photographed at openings but rarely hassled by the paparazzi, a reminder perhaps that if you don’t want to be treated like a star, don’t act like one.
Based in the harbour city with his wife and two children, Weaving has split his time in the past decade between global blockbusters (The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, V for vendetta and the forthcoming Wolf Man with Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro), local films such as The Tender Hook, 2005’s Little Fish and the forthcoming Last Ride, the debut feature film by 2003 Cannes Film Festival short film winner Glendyn Ivin, and the Sydney stage.
Like many local actors, he enjoys the intimacy and camaraderie of home-grown productions, balanced no doubt by a desire for the big chques that attach to blockbusters (nd which don’t attach to low-budget locals).
"The films I most want to work on are ones like Last Ride – it’s Glendyn Ivin’s first feature film and he’s a wonderful young director," Weaving says. "I could work on pieces like that non-stop. The bigger blockbuster ones, I enjoy them but they also tend to be less rewarding when you’re working on them. There are many more people and thus poorer communication; it’s slower, it’s harder to find a rhythm. I don’t find the nearly as challenging as working on something here."
He starred in Andrew Upton’s new play, Riflemind, for the Sydney Theatre Company last year and before that in the Sydney and New York seasons of the STC’s Hedda Gabler opposite Upton’s wife, Cate Blanchett. Many of the Sydney cast members of Riflemind are starring in its current London season but it didn’t fit with Weaving’s schedule so he did not go.
He hopes to do something for the STC every two years, and is supportive of the company’s desire to perform more regularly offshore, a move which began under former artistic director Robyn Nevin and will continue under Upton and Blanchett. Australian theatre companies tour offshore sporadically, in contrast to regular trips by our dance, music and physical theatre companies. It’s odd, albeit partly understandable given the language barrier in some countries, but thankfully changing.
"With people like Barrie Kosky going and working and living in Europe, and also coming back here to work, it’s exciting, and I think it’s important for our theatre practitioners," Weaving says. "Hopefully Cate and Andrew will up the ante on shows travelling, but obviously you have to produce the work in the first place."
Weaving plays opposite Rosy Byrne in The Tender Hook, which the New Zealand-bor Olgivie has been developing for a decade. It was the film’s setting, 1920s Sydney, that first attracted Weaving to the role.
"I was immediately interested in that period in Sydney, and as soon as I said yes to the role I read Razor (Larry Writer’s 2001 book) about the razor gangs in Sydney in the late 1920s," Weaving says. "There was something incredibly lawless about [that time], the police had very few powers to control certain elements in society, people were admitted to hospital every night with slashed faces and so on. It was a blood era."
The movie involves a love triangle between McHeath, an entrepreneur who among other things arranges boxing matches, his beautiful girlfriend Iris, and one of his boxers, Art (Matt Le Nevez). It leaves viewers wondering whether Iris is as cold-hearted and ambitious as McHeath – or even more so.
"It’s about the broader universal forces that were happening in Sydney at the time and I guess around the world, revolutionary forces and forces for change in a particular country at a particular time," Weaving says. "It’s about personal politics, individuals in the 1920s Sydney underworld, but also representations of sections of Australian society. That was the thing that interested me: how do you tell a story that you can read in two ways? It has these classic archetypal characters but it’s really about power, the nature of power and the desire for power. The workers are talking abut revolution and forming temporary alliances to try to usurp the father figure and bring down the empire. In the end they might replace the head but does the body change, or does someone else just take over?"
there must be something slightly depressing about pouring your heart and soul into a low budget Australian film when you know that, based on statistics and barring an unexpected break-out, most Australians won’t bother paying $12 to see it. Weaving’s answer to the problem Australian films face at the box office i to increase their marketing budgets.
"I’ve always asserted that it’s not that Australian films are getting worse, in fact I’d argue they’re much more interesting than they used to be, and more varied," he says. "There are some fantastic films but that doesn’t necessarily mean they get seen. Sometimes it’s to do with their quality but often it’s not; often it’s to do with the amount of money being spent on promotion. They need more promotional money."
Let’s hope someone is listening.
The Tender Hook opens in Australia on September 18.