Hugo Weaving fans will enjoy watching him gobble up the screen in writer/director Jonathan Ogilvie’s The Tender Hook, a sumptuously shot period drama set in Sydney in the 1920s. It’s the sort of role Weaving seems genetically designed to play: highly educated, well-manicured, despicably debonair. His character is a boxing manager who forms one third of a dangerous love triangle.
The Tender Hook reaffirms Weaving’s status as a consummate performer of cool intellects and cultivated characters. Generally however his range is deceptively narrow – could you, for example, picture Hugo the Hairy Bogan, lounging at home on a dilapidated couch in footy shorts and a tank top, knocking back cheap beers and gorging on potato chips and chicken wings while keeping one inebriated eye on Australia’s Funniest Home Videos?
If you answered no, or perhaps no, then Hugo Weaving has more work to do before he can be hailed a truly versatile actor. But what he does he does exceptionally well, and in the Tender Hook Weaving is at his beguiling best.
He is McHeath, the kind of guy who shares equal affection for Shakespeare and sharp instruments. McHeath suspects his drug-sniffing, porcelain-featured partner Iris (Rose Byrne) is up to something behind his back. He’s right: Iris is romantically attached to Art (Matt Le Nevez), a dim but decent-hearted young boxer who McHeath hopes will be the next big thing. A bootleg beer operation surreptitiously takes place between Iris and McHeath’s cronies, emphasising the moral destitution of this world: just about everybody is corruptible and self-serving.
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen fans may notice that The Tender Hook is occasionally (and quite oddly) anachronistic: McHeath, an amateur singer, performs songs that were written decades after the film is set.
Geoffrey Simpson’s beautiful cinematography infuses Ogilvie’s story with a sensual magnitude it would have otherwise lacked (he also shot Shine and Romulus, My Father). There are also some funky backgrounds and editing transitions that play with the surface of old film stock by adding quirky colours and shading. Interestingly, the characters occasionally interact with these unusual flourishes.
At the core of the film is the simple and familiar concept of the ill-fated love triangle. As they say, two is company and three is a crowd, and it isn’t difficult to guess which of the trio might not live happily ever after. The romance between Iris and Art is fundamental to the story but it’s much too esoteric: it’s difficult to know what they see in each other and whether their attraction comes from pleasures of the flesh or something deeper.
Ogilvie’s screenplay is engrossing and fluently written but lacks overarching themes. Subsequently the film doesn’t seem to be ‘about’ anything. The actors are impressive and dissolve into the fabric of Simpson’s smoky compositions, although Matt Le Nevez is a little flat as the quintessentially meaty, built-like-a-brick boxer. Rose Byrne is enigmatic and enchanting as a headstrong character difficult to categorize or predict. And then there’s our man Hugo, the star of the show.
Weaving’s persona gels harmoniously with Cab Sav and caviar; there’s something about that velvety voice and thespian demeanour that screams of high culture. You won’t see him scratching his bum or scrounging for change in The Tender Hook, but what you will see is another finely cultivated performance that makes this handsomely made, if slightly underwhelming drama, very much worthwhile.