Dir: Rowan Woods. Aus.2005. 114mins.
Cate Blanchett laststarred in an Australian film with Gillian Armstrong's Oscar And Lucinda(1997), in which her 19th-century heiress harboured dreams of building a glasschurch in the Outback.
She returns to Australianfilm-making eight years later - and with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar - toplay another dreamer in Rowan Woods' Little Fish. But Tracy Heart, arestless, brittle recovered heroin addict struggling with a blocked life inmodern day Sydney, is a world away from Armstrong's period drama.
Typically for Blanchett it'sno easy ride. But typically she's up to the challenge, delivering anaward-worthy performance that combines layered honesty and gritty reality withher trademark luminosity.
Little Fish, which opened the Melbourne International FilmFestival on Wednesday, is certain to enjoy major festival play during thecoming autumn season. Sales already secured include Prooptiki (CIS), HBO Ole(Latin America), Ster Kinekor (South Africa) and Equinoxe (Canada).
In Australia the film opens onaround 40 screens on Sept 8 - enough in Australian terms to cover most keyspecialist and upmarket multiplexes.
Marketing is likely totarget audiences who responded to more serious character-driven ensemble faresuch as Paul Haggis' Crash or, closer to home, Ray Lawrence's Lantana:less attention will be made of the central character's past as a heroin addict,more on the emotional life choices that she now faces.
Overseas it should alsoenjoy similar awards attention and critical acclaim, although Woods' opaqueapproach and deliberate ambiguities means it is unlikely to enjoy themainstream success it perhaps deserves.
But sympathetic audienceswill enjoy responding to the intelligent and emotional workout offered by thebest Australian feature since Lantana (2001)
Tracy (Blanchett), cleanfrom heroin for four years, feels she's wasted much of her adult life. Shelives with her mother Janelle (Hazlehurst) and disabled brother Ray (Henderson)in a rented house and is now in the process of applying for a bank loan -likely to be unsuccessful - to buy into the small-scale DVD rental shop shemanages.
On the edge of the family isLionel (Weaving), a former Rugby League star who, the story suggests, wasJanelle's partner during the kids' early years. Now he is a drug-addictedwreck, supported by gangster/developer and former gay lover Brad (Neill).
Back into Tracy's life comesJonny (Nguyen), a Vietnamese-Australian who suddenly left town for Canada fouryears ago. He's prosperous now, an unlikely stockbroker, and Tracy wonders ifshe can get the money she needs from him - not knowing that he has quiteanother agenda.
Working from an intricatescript by Jacquelin Perske, Woods - directing only his second feature afterchilling debut The Boys (1997) - delivers a tautly assured drama thatbuilds considerable tension through its large cast of excellent actors at thetop of their form.
He makes his audience workhard, asking them to pick up hints, clues and oblique references to past eventsfrom the sparse dialogue and edgy acting.
It takes considerablescreen-time before the family dynamic is established, and some key events andrelationships from the back story are never fully explained. The (possible) carcrash that was the (probable) cause of Ray's amputation below the knee andJonny's departure seems crucial - but is not explored. And the bushland climaxwould have been tauter still if all motives were clearer.
But it's the acting thatmakes Little Fish so memorable. And while Blanchett admirably holdscentre stage, she still faces strong competition.
Hugo Weaving delivers arevelatory performance, switching tack from the multiplex persona evidenced inboth the Matrix and Lord Of The Rings series (and to be seen inWarner Bros upcoming V for Vendetta in November).
Gruff, unshaven and sportingbroken nose and multiple facial scars, he is at first unrecognisable, yet hisself-hating, tough-guy, homosexual drug addict still manages to evince audiencesympathy. This is great film acting.
Martin Henderson gets thesad, life-wasting brother note perfect - we disapprove of him, yet still likehim - while Noni Hazlehurst is brilliantly warm, angry and confused as thelong-suffering mother.
Camerawork and productiondesign make the most of the striking suburb of Cabramatta, a Vietnamese areasometimes known as Little Saigon that feels incongruous when stood next to therest of Sydney.
Danny Ruhlmann's photography- sometimes handheld - almost floats through the neighbourhood's streets,workplaces and homes, drifting in and out of focus.
The score from Nathan Larson(who won best music at Cannes in 2004 for The Woodsman) is a fullyintegrated electronic mix of mood and action, blending waterscapes, rumbles,mall sounds and wind chimes.
Film Finance Corporation Australia
Mullis Capital Independent
NSW Film & TV Office
Icon Film Distribution
Barrie M Osborne
Alexandre De Franceschi