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February 3, 2015
The Australian anthology of short films, The Turning, all based on Tim Winton’s short stories collection, is an unapologetic look at obsession, regret and how past digs into the present, latches on, trips us up and changes us forever.
As with any collection of short films, some soar and shine, notably Mia Wasikowska’s directorial debut along with Tony Ayres’s tender and tragic story of first love, whilst some struggle and stumble with translating Winton’s writing onto the screen through an overuse of narration, clunky portrayals or over-literal depictions forgoing more cinematic routes.
It is commendably ambitious and a cultural feat; yet the jagged inconsistencies between the films may lose audiences outside of the homeland. This passion project of creator Robert Connolly sees the original adaptation of Winton’s short-story collection clock in at the 3 hours mark, with contributions ranging from across the Australian art world – from film actors and directors, as well as the worlds of theatre, photography and dance.
The theatrical release only gets just over half of that, seven stories taken from the original eighteen filmed. From this, it would be easy to presume that nearly all the stories selected for the cut represent the best of the bunch; however despite a number of these films reaching grand heights of short film cinema, many tread and drag their feet along the way, a tedious watch to wait and hope that the next short may kick the film back into life. This see-saw between films gluing what was written onto the screen and those that stretch and play with the original and what cinema can add to literature comes across as frustrating.
Notable Australian director Tony Ayres delivers Cockleshell, one of the highlights of the collection, a patient yet thrilling story of first love and domestic struggles. Mia Wasikowska is one of the two actors making their directorial debut in this anthology, and her piece, Long, Clear View, stands out amongst the rest. Not satisfied to stay within the borders of the story, Wasikowska breaks out in a flavourful, eccentric short along the lines of Wes Anderson and her The Double‘s director, Richard Ayoade. A feature film debut is sure to be one to watch out for in the future horizon. However, because of how distinct Wasikowska’s piece is, it often feels awkwardly placed amongst the rest of the collection.
Connolly also manages to grab some of the strongest stars in Australian cinema in front of the camera – including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Hugo Weaving. However, despite being in their safe hands for momentary scenes, the film fails to maintain the momentum, and often becomes lost in aim.
It possesses sprawling ambition – an adventure the creator called a ‘daft idea’ – and for that, admiration is deserved. Yet, many of the shorts become less stories, and more fragments, and a coherent whole is hard to nail down. I wish the bold cinematic idea had worked better, given how it’s adapting one of Australia’s most revered authors, set in small Australian communities, with some of the best of Australian cinematic talent on offer and gorgeous visual beauty captured, yet the film misses a crucial beat or two.
Despite some star-sized performances and fantastic directorial deliveries, many of the shorts fall into the adaptation trap of simply showing images described in the book, thinking the significance will remain the same across the screen. Nevertheless, The Turning remains a film export not about the exotic lands or sprawling outback that often reaches other cinemas’ shores. Instead, it is firmly concerned with the daily life of the remote coastal towns and neighborhoods along Western Australia: angsty suburban workers, struggling working class, fishing towns and high school students, and notably, Aboriginal character-led stories.
The Turning is now available on DVD