Movie of the week: The Eye of the Storm

Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling as son and mother in The Eye of the Storm.

Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling as son and mother in The Eye of the Storm.

Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm was published in 1973, the same year he got the Nobel Prize for Literature. Early copies of the novel were rushed to wavering judges, it is reported, though it seems it was White’s previous novel, the monumental tome The Vivisector, that weighed most heavily in the scales.

The Eye of the Storm has now been turned into a movie, scripted by Judy Morris and directed by Fred Schepisi. Australian Schepisi made A Cry in the Dark, about the Lindy Chamberlain case (dingo steals baby), and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, about an Aborigine who turns violent, but he has also directed many movies entirely free of Australian content, including Six Degrees of Separation and Last Orders.

Perhaps The Eye of the Storm can be seen as a return to Australia, or at least Australian settings, for Schepisi. Surprisingly, it’s the first White novel to be made into a film, despite a decade-long wrangle over one of his most famous books, Voss (1957), in which plans for an adaptation came to nothing. At one point Ken Russell was wooed as director, and one has to wonder what on earth that flamboyant exhibitionist would have made of this long, dense tale based on the historical figure of the explorer Ludwig Leichhart, who disappeared in the outback while attempting to cross the Australian continent, mostly on foot.

White himself gives the most succinct possible summary of what The Eye of the Storm is about. As he wrote to his publisher in 1972: “The novel tends to stress the darker purposes in the lives of the main characters, one of whom is an actor who has failed as Lear, like most actors, and who returns to Australia with his sister to persuade their aged mother to die.”

Of course these characters don’t express their mission as bluntly as their author, but then they aren’t always as aware of their own motivations as an omniscient narrator. When Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) and his sister Dorothy (Judy Davis) return to Australia to see their mother Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling), who is on her deathbed, they are not consciously advocating her speedy death. That said, they are very concerned about inheritances and the like, plus the possibility of putting mom in an old-age home, not to mention the various emotional tangles of the past — the kind of thing that’s inevitable in families, though here perhaps more dramatised (and dramatic) than in many.

Delicate dance of the emotions
As flashbacks inform us, bit by bit, Elizabeth was a larger-than-life character who rather over-awed her children. Her sheer lust for life, it seems, was a bit much for them; they seem to have felt she might simply consume them too, along with all the other delicacies she regally appropriated to herself. It is easy to imagine that each of them left Australia, at least in part, to get away from her — Basil to London to become an actor and Dorothy into an unhappy marriage with a French nobleman.

And so Elizabeth, bewigged, made-up and arranged, reclines in various positions to receive her children — and to manipulate them further. Thus a delicate dance of the emotions between mother, son and daughter, plus lawyers, nurses and household staff, revolves around this ancient, nearly senile but still immensely powerful woman.

That she is played in the film by Charlotte Rampling helps a great deal, for we have to get at least a whiff of the sensuous, dangerous woman she used to be. Rampling’s own history in the movies (The Night Porter and so forth) resonates here; it’s possible to imagine her as just such a figure. Even in her nearly paralysed state, Rampling’s Elizabeth Hunter is a commanding figure. It can’t be easy to act a part in which you are mostly confined to bed, but Rampling manages with apparent ease, and not just the regal bit but also a terrible vulnerability — she is an ancient, pained woman lying in bed, “managing her bones”, as White puts it in the novel.

Judy Davis, as Dorothy, has the difficult task of playing the daughter here. She has to be a less charismatic character than her mother, frigid where Elizabeth is sensual and cautious where she is bold, without becoming a mere foil. Dorothy cannot become grey and featureless, and here Davis puts her considerable talents to excellent use. She’s twitchy, angry, yet almost pathologically reserved.

And that leaves us Geoffrey Rush as Basil — Sir Basil, in fact, for he has been knighted for services to the British theatre that do not, presumably, include his “failed” Lear. Rush’s finicky theatricality has irked me in the past, but here he’s simply perfect: all those actorly twitches can be put in service of the role, even as Basil himself tries to deal with his mother’s impending death and his own secret intention to write about her when she’s gone; that and his need to maintain a certain façade among his Australian actor friends.

And note, by the way, the symbolic link to King Lear in White’s story of an aged monarchic figure carving up inheritances, never mind Elizabeth’s occasional divagations into senile imagining. The “darker purposes” White mentioned in his 1972 letter are from the play, and Elizabeth is the kind of person who might have taken as a motto Lear’s desperate words: “O reason not the need!”

With such strong performances to propel it, The Eye of the Storm makes absorbing viewing. It may be a bit too long, but the scriptwriter has already cut out large chunks of the story, so it probably couldn’t be much shorter and still be reasonably faithful to the novel. What is most missed in the cinematic adaptation is more of Elizabeth’s inner life, especially a fuller sense of what the titular storm meant to her, and her time nursing her dying husband. This leaves Elizabeth, in the film, a somewhat less rounded and complex character, but she comes across powerfully enough.

The movie proceeds at a fairly stately pace, but that’s also a concession to the need to develop and outline some pretty changeable characters — and that also makes its moments of shock or humour more striking by contrast. Most of all, though, it’s a pleasure simply to watch the consummate performers in The Eye of the Storm doing their thing.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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