Sydney, 1972. Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) lies on her deathbed, attended to round the clock by a team of nurses. Throughout their lives she has been a controlling influence on her children – Basil (Geoffrey Rush), a distinguished and knighted actor based in London, and Dorothy (Judy Davis) who married and is now separated from a French nobleman – and as they return to the family home recriminations are due.
Patrick White (1912-1990) wrote plays and short fiction, but it is on his novels that his reputation as a major twentieth century writer will rest. They are stories of characters who pursue visions and are often misunderstood and shunned by society, the snobberies and smallmindedness of which White had a keen eye for. In 1973, the year that The Eys of the Storm was published, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian writer (if you don't count the South African-born, naturalised Australian J.M. Coetzee) to have won it. However, film versions of his works have not been forthcoming. In the late 60s, David Mercer wrote a screenplay for Voss, which would have been directed by Joseph Losey and would have starred Maximilian Schell as the German outback explorer of the title. Until now the only White-derived feature film was Jim Sharman's 1978 The Night The Prowler, with a screenplay by White from his novella of the same title, which can be found in his 1974 collection The Cockatoos.But apart from some television adaptations of plays, that was it until Judy Morris adapted and Fred Schepisi directed this 2011 film of The Eye of the Storm.
Eye was White's ninth novel and compared to many of his others is a chamber piece, with a relatively small cast and span of time (with flashbacks to an event many years earlier which gives a literal as well as metaphorical meaning to the title). It's also unusual in having a contemporary setting instead of being a period or historical piece. The novel is very character-led, in some depth: at 600 pages it's White's second longest, exceeded only by its immediate predecessor The Vivisector. Judy Morris's screenplay does an admirable job of condensing all of this into two hours of screentime. Nothing major is left out and, even given the occasionally dour subject matter of the story, the film is often very funny.
Schepisi and his regular DP Ian Baker (as almost always, shooting in Scope) give space for their actors, as you would with a cast like this. The three principals are excellent, with Rampling (in real life just five years older than Rush and nine older than Davis) playing many years older than her actual age. This is the first film for Helen Morse, and only the second for Liz Alexander, since the early 1980s. But a standout is Alexandra Schepisi (daughter of Fred) as the nurse Flora Manhood who enters into a mismatched affair with Basil.
White may be much less read now (especially in the UK) than he was when he was alive, but this film's lack of UK distribution is the UK's loss. It received its British premiere a year to the day after its Australian cinema release and the film is not only out on Blu-ray and DVD in its native country, it has also been shown on television there. Evidently the audience for upscale literary adaptations is as in need of the familiar as any other. In the last year we've had new versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (I've only seen the latter, and no complaints about its quality, but why never any of the other five Brontë novels?) and we are about to get yet another adaptation of Great Expectations. That's a pity – DVD and Blu-ray are fine things, but The Eye of the Storm is a cinema film, one of many pleasures, and deserves to be seen on a big screen.
The Eye of the Storm was reviewed from its showing on 15 September at the Clapham Picturehouse as part of Filmfest Australia. There will be a second showing at the Hackney Picturehouse on 23 September.