Charlotte Rampling gives a powerhouse performance as the overbearing dying matriarch in Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of Patrick White’s 1973 novel, The Eye of the Storm. Rampling plays Elizabeth Hunter who for one reason or other is the owner of a beautiful estate in the Sydney suburb of Centennial Park. The film starts soon after Elizabeth has had a stroke and becomes decrepit and bedridden. She is attended and looked after by two nurses and a housekeeper, all of whom cater very specifically to Elizabeth’s needs. Her two adult children, Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis) rush back to Australia from their homes in Europe to be by their mother’s side as she falls into the darkness of her final weeks and days.
Throughout the course of the film we learn, through flashbacks and Elizabeth’s ramblings that the nature of this family isn’t completely loving and functional. Basil has returned from England where he has become a famous stage actor, but his performance as Shakespeare’s King Lear has forced critics to point out his weaknesses. Whilst he is fun and fancy free, walking around with a positive and confident demeanour, we gradually learn that he was never good enough for his mother and that due to this recent blow from the critics, his career as a stage actor is very quickly dwindling. Instead Basil flirts his away across high society, where he is using his cultural capital in other ways. He sleeps with women half his age, who are simply interested in his star persona and they hope to hog the spotlight for just a few moments.Davis also gives a tantalising performance as Dorothy, a women who has reached an age where men are starting to lose interest in her for the right reasons and instead she attracts attention due to her own societal status. We learn that Dorothy has a strained and uncomfortable relationship with her mother because Elizabeth once went too far with a man that Dorothy was once attached to. She moved to France where she married into royalty, but that marriage went sour and they divorced; she notes that she managed to keep the title but nothing else. She lives her life out in Paris going from function to function with little opportunity to actually enjoy life.
One of the absolute strengths of The Eye of the Storm is the intensity of the relationships between mother and children; although they are both so hurt by her, they are inextricably attached to her and the power she exudes over them. When they learn about her demise and ‘rush’ back to her side, Basil is more interested in having drinks with friends before deciding to visit his mother and Dorothy is both ashamed and uninterested in understanding why her mother is seemingly giving away her jewellery; in other words, the inheritance. Elizabeth is no stupid woman and assume her children have returned to the nest just for the money, which she is adamant won’t go to them. Schepisi’s film is such that Elizabeth’s character isn’t fully revealed until the end; whilst at first she seems like a doting, rich old lady, the audience later understands the true personality behind the frivolity and a lying and deceiving woman is revealed with little around her to love.
The location shooting, set dressing and costuming of the film is evocative and beautiful, with intricate detail placed into all the rooms of the film. A great chunk of the film is set in Elizabeth’s room, whilst she lays on her bed and the colours of the room are so intense that you feel a sense of her character in the very room she lays. The deep and crisp reds of the room are connotations for the seductiveness of her character, which Rampling manages to make seem so genuine and thrilling as well as the apparent danger of what is to come and what is to be revealed. Furthermore the spaces of the film are so wonderfully set out that you understand that certain places and items belong to certain characters and only during high moments of tension and drama can these spaces be invaded by those who aren’t meant to be there.
Elizabeth is tended by Lotte, the housekeeper who also entertains Elizabeth with her erotics dances wearing her dresses. She is played by Helen Morse who shines on screen and fully takes the attention of the audience. She moves from being friends with the matriarch at the start, almost being in on jokes between themselves to falling into the same dark hole as her mistress as she becomes scared that she will be threatened with legal action and thrown out of the house because Elizabeth’s children won’t believe that she has inherited items and has not stolen them. There are also two nurses, Mary (Maria Theodorakis) who cares so much for her mistress but lives silently under the abuse of Elizabeth and the young Flora (Alexandra Schepisi) who forms a relationship with Basil and intends to work her seductiveness on this weak man and get a share in the family by falling pregnant. When she realises that Basil wants to be with her, but he won’t just fall into line and he tries to teach her the formalities, she rebels and grows angry and then finds herself very lost.
Schepisi seems to be an interesting filmmaker because he shoots great sweeping landscapes with such care and attention and yet seems pretty heavy handed on trying to create a sense of intimacy and intrigue, which is very necessary to pull off the various twists and deceptions of the film. He seems to have recently discovered the zoom function on his camera and so instead of creating a set of invisible movements, which will bring the audience closer to the characters, to really feel and understand their emotions, he sits the camera down and zooms in and out of scenes with few cares in the world. This was off putting and in fact creates a sense of alienation, which forces the audience to never fully appreciate or sympathise with the characters.
All in all The Eye of the Storm is a success; lead by the intensity of it’s female characters who storm the screen as women who all have a past, which has affected their present and will haunt their future. Unfortunately, some of the filmmaking let the film down and the male characters and their performances aren’t as powerful as they should be, especially from Rush who seems a little deflated throughout. It tells a haunting story, which really does make you believe a storm is afoot and this family are about to be hit.
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