Dir: Gaylene Preston. New Zealand. 2003. 96mins.
After its sold-out premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival, Gaylene Preston's "chilling romance" has, unsurprisingly, been invited to Montreal in September, a timely reminder that New Zealand cinema has more to offer than Lord Of The Rings blockbuster fantasy. Perfect Strangers is an adult, finely acted feature that cleverly subverts audience expectations as the intriguing narrative unwinds. Just when we think we know where she is going, veteran writer/director/producer Preston changes emotional gear with the invaluable assistance of Australian actress Rachael Blake (Lantana) who delivers a bruising, naturalistic performance of considerable nuance and brilliance. Paired with a moody, menacing Sam Neill, Blake is a certain award contender. Though basically an intense three-hander, the psychological thriller also boasts spectacular South Island scenery, mid-ocean storms and shipwrecks. Arthouse interest seems assured both at home (where it opens early next year) and in Australia (Oct 9), and it could well be the second New Zealand film this year to attract real international interest after the success of Whale Rider.
Blake plays Melanie, an independent, emotionally empty thirtysomething serving fish and chips in a small coastal town. After work she goes looking for booze and men, hoping to find some newcomers, certainly not reliable ex-lover Bill (Tobeck). In a hotel bar the well-oiled Melanie meets her 'perfect stranger' - a rugged, fixated seaman (Neill, identified only as The Man) who has clearly planned her subsequent kidnapping on his motor launch.
"I don't really go for this nature shit," says Melanie when she finds herself in a run-down, candle-lit shack on a steep rain-forested island, obliged to wear clothes and jewellery provided by her lovestruck captor.
He is surprisingly cultured and caring and clearly knows a lot about her: she is not averse to giving him what she assumes he is after. But the psychology of both characters is complex and unpredictable. The mood keeps changing along with the wonderfully filmed weather and there are some painful physical encounters as Rachael fights for her freedom and, soon, her common sense. This progression is brilliantly charted by Preston and hypnotically portrayed by Blake.
There then comes a major midpoint plot twist, forcing Melanie (and the audience) to venture into unexpected, uncharted waters. Bill returns (Tobeck is convincingly baffled by what he finds) and Melanie struggles to make sense of her unexpected journey from town-based brittleness to island emotionalism. It is a challenging ride, directed with great skill, although some may find the ending a psychological step too far.
All production departments make significant contributions. Soundtrack music and effects add greatly to the growing tensions: there is standout production design and editing. But perhaps the most memorable creative partner is the New Zealand setting, captured tellingly by cinematographer Bollinger. Has ever such an intense inner struggle been played against such wide and towering locations'
Prod cos: Gaylene Preston Productions, Huntaway Productions
Int'l sales: New Zealand Film
Aust/NZ dist: 20th Century Fox
Prods: Preston, Robin Laing
Cinematography: Alun Bollinger
Prod des: Joe Bleakley
Ed: John Gilbert
Music: Plan 9
Main cast: Sam Neill, Rachael Blake, Joel Tobeck