Sydney, the jazz age. A place of razor gangs and killer suits. In his ringside seat, McHeath is an English gangster on the lookout for talented young boxers. And he likes what he sees in Art, a hard-hitting newcomer with punches as clean as his morals.
McHeath is thrilled by violence, as is his glamorous partner, Iris, whose lipstick is the same shade of red as the blood trickling from Art’s lip.
McHeath, Iris and Art are the central characters of this sumptuous, ambitious period drama from Jonathan Ogilvie. We don’t often see their sort in Aussie features, and that alone makes them intriguing. This is anything but a coming-of-age yarn – the genre that obsesses most Aussie filmmakers.
Better yet, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Despite his violent temper, McHeath styles himself as a crooner who takes every opportunity to perform. Art, unable to measure up to his war hero brother, is noble but driven by feelings of inadequacy. And Iris sits somewhere in between: like McHeath, she is ruthless, ambitious and cruel – traits exacerbated by cocaine; like Art, she is loyal and sometimes loving. What follows is a battle between the three; alliances shift amid betrayal, theft, infidelity and double-crossings.
In an imaginative work the most stunning achievements are technical. Archival shots of Bondi Pavilion, Brisbane and the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction aren’t doctored to look like modern scenes; the characters are simply superimposed, which makes for a surprisingly effective evocation of the era.
Improbably, the director of photography, Geoffrey Simpson, the editor, Ken Sallows, the production designer, Pete Baxter, and the costume designer, Cappi Ireland (among others), give the illusion of working with a Hollywood budget. The attention to detail is remarkable, including the pivotal gown designed by Akira Isogawa. Meanwhile Chris Abrahams, pianist with the Necks, has composed a score that is delicate and haunting.
The technical achievements are even more impressive given that this quintessential Sydney story was shot in Melbourne. For Ogilvie, apparently, the red tape and expense of shooting in Sydney proved prohibitive.
The cast delivers admirable performances. As McHeath, Hugo Weaving is a menacing mumbler; Rose Byrne’s beautiful melancholia perfectly suits Iris, and Matt Le Nevez is solid and likeable as Art, as is Luke Carroll as his Aboriginal sparring partner.
So why isn’t this a five-star drama? The short answer is the story, which lacks the greatness of the technical achievements. At times, crucial revelations are delivered with too much subtlety. Better to be subtle than heavy-handed, but at times I was left scratching my head.
The characters, too, could have been more rounded. Pia Miranda’s Daisy is emblematic: she might have been a fascinating contrast to Iris, but she’s largely irrelevant.
A Kiwi-born Sydneysider, Ogilvie first made a splash here with This Film Is A Dog, which won Tropfest in 1996. By then he had already made videos for the Bats and Hoodoo Gurus and had worked with Stanley Kubrick. He has since made a digital short, Jet Set, and a "no-budget black-and-white Super 8 feature", Emulsion.
The Tender Hook is, effectively, Ogilvie’s feature debut; it confirms he is a formidable talent.