AACTA Member Spotlight: Mandy Walker – Cinematographer

Mandy Walker on the set of AUSTRALIA

Mandy Walker knew she wanted to be a cinematographer from the tender age of 13. It was the only profession that united her deep loves of photography and the cinema so completely. As a child, Walker’s mother nourished her artistic tendencies with trips to the art gallery while her father whetted her appetite for foreign films with regular outings to the State Film Theatre in Melbourne.

Walker now lives and works predominantly in Los Angeles, but over the years she has shot a wide suite of Australian and international content, ranging from feature films to television shows and commercials. Her work includes: Australia, Lantana, Australian Rules, Love Serenade and Shattered Glass and advertisements for big name brands like: Chanel No. 5, Dior, Nike, Bonds, Telstra, Audi and BMW. Walker is enthralled by the collaborative process and loves working alongside talented and inspired directors who push her outside of her comfort zone.

Walker has been nominated and has won multiple awards for her craft both locally and internationally. In 1996, she won the AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film for Parklands and in 1997 was nominated for the AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for The Well.

Still a strong believer in the qualities of film as a capture medium, Walker has also embraced the digital revolution with open arms. When asked what advice she’d give up-and-coming cinematographers, her answer is simple: never stop learning, and be brave. Her favourite period of Australian filmmaking is perhaps indicative of this advice; she cites such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant and Gallipoli. These films had a unique cinematic style that went on to redefine Australian cinema internationally.

Read on for more insight into Walker’s early career moves, her working methods and her inspirations. It’s clear she’s been an incredibly self-motivated professional who’s kept extending her skills. Her answers also give great insight into the way each project can lead on to other opportunities.

Mandy Walker is one of our highly regarded AACTA members. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad.

AFI | AACTA: Whereabouts did you grow up and what impact (if any) do you think this has had on the style of your work?

Mandy Walker: I grew up in Melbourne but I don’t think that it has affected the style of my work. I feel like I’ve been more influenced by photography, art and cinema from all over the world. My mother had taken me to galleries from the age of two, and my father to foreign film screenings at the State Film Theatre, when I was at High School. I do think that growing up in Melbourne has influenced my approach to my work. In general, I find most Australians have a great work ethic. They are quite confident yet humble in their attitude towards work, and working relationships.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you predominantly live and work now?

Mandy Walker: I now live in Los Angeles. Most of the commercial work I do is here in town, with some projects overseas. The movies I have shot have been in Australia, and Canada. However, I did recently shoot a telemovie in Boston.

AFI | AACTA: What is your most vivid childhood memory?

Mandy Walker: The most vivid childhood memories I have are of holidays at Australian beaches with my family.

AFI | AACTA: When did you know that you wanted to be a cinematographer and what training did you undergo?

Mandy Walker: I knew from the age of about 13 that I wanted to become a cinematographer. I had always loved photography and the cinema. So for me it was an obvious choice to combine the two. I had a small black and white darkroom that my father set up for me in the back shed and I made a few Super 8 films at High School. In my final year at Preston Technical College, I studied Cinema Studies.

Eventually, by ringing Film Victoria, and a number of producers shooting films in Melbourne, I got a job as a runner on a feature film. I made everyone on that project aware that all I wanted was to get into the camera department. Through these contacts and working for free as a camera assistant on a couple of documentaries and music videos, I got promoted to being a clapper loader and then focus puller on dramas and documentaries. In about five years, I was shooting small projects myself. Looking back, I’m really glad I moved up this way, as I was able to learn from the cinematographers I was working for and develop my own skills alongside them.

AFI | AACTA: You worked as a camera assistant for seven years before gaining the opportunity to shoot docos and short films. How did you get your first big break as a cinematographer and what was the first major project you cut your teeth on?

Mandy Walker: During my time as a camera assistant, I also shot small music videos and student films for students at Swinburne. This was how I really learnt my craft, by actually lighting and exposing film, trying out different ideas, making mistakes, and discovering what worked and what didn’t. Ray Argall offered me my first big break. At that time, he was a cinematographer on features and a cinematographer/director on music videos and documentaries. I had been working on some of his bigger multi camera set-ups for music videos and live concerts as his focus puller and camera operator. When he was to direct his first feature film Return Home (1990) he asked me to be his Cinematographer. I was only 25 years old at the time. I had learnt a lot from him over the years, and it was a great experience to finally step up to the position to collaborate with him as a director.

Mandy and Baz on the set of AUSTRALIA

AFI | AACTA: What is it about the art of cinematography that particularly excites you? What do you enjoy most about your work? What are the worst or most challenging/tedious aspects of the job?

Mandy Walker: I think what excites me most about my job is that it is full of many varied experiences and challenges. I am constantly having to think of new ways to approach ideas or situations and combine them with a certain style, or invent a new one. The worst part of my job is that I am away a lot from home and family. My parents and my sister and her kids, all my relatives, reside in Melbourne. My husband’s family is in Wollongong.

AFI | AACTA: You have worked on a number of critically acclaimed Australian and international films, among them Australia, Lantana, Australian Rules, Love Serenade and Shattered Glass. How do you go about choosing your projects?

Mandy Walker: I definitely have directors that I really want to work with, and that combined with reading a really great script is how I decide. I also never want to pigeonhole myself with a certain genre so I try to read a lot of different ones.

AFI | AACTA: How much input do you typically have in determining the right “look” of a film and how would you describe the communication process between director and DOP?

Mandy Walker: It really varies depending on the relationship I have with a director. I feel I have to be open and adaptive to this. I would never go into a project and dictate to a director: “this is how the movie should look”. Some directors come to me with a very clear idea of their references or vision, which I then interpret into a visual language. It is my job to figure out how I can achieve the director’s vision cinematically, in collaboration with the director then the art department and costume department.

Mandy on the set of a NIKE commercial

Then there are those directors who come to you with a clear idea of what they want to say in the film, but not a very strong cinematic vision. This process involves searching for and trying out different ideas and reference materials that might appeal to their style of story telling. I will glean [from] art galleries, photography and art books, and other movies to find influential images or scenes that I feel resonate with the story, emotions, and journey of the characters in our film. Depending on the project, this collection of references will vary from one or two key elements to a comprehensive list.

Mandy on the set of AUSTRALIA

For other directors it’s about how we approach shooting the locations we’ve chosen. For example, with Lantana Ray Lawrence wanted to use natural available light as much as possible to capture the atmosphere of particular locations. He did not want the actors to feel restricted so we used the minimum amount of equipment and lighting. In some interior scenes, it was just the actors and a camera in the room. For a cinematographer, this wasn’t easy as I couldn’t control the light. I always shoot tests before we start a main shoot just to make sure that our ideas work.

AFI | AACTA: Australia was a big budget Australian epic and Baz Luhrmann is renowned for captivating audiences with visually spectacular films. Was this film especially difficult to shoot? What were the most important elements for you in choosing how you caught the action on camera?

Mandy Walker: Baz is a very inspiring director, and one who has a clear vision of his movies before he goes into pre-production. He and Catherine Martin are extremely thorough with their visual presentations of ideas early on. Their historic locations, costume and character references are always very well researched. The visual language of their project starts there. Baz then brings on myself and other key crew to collaborate. Australia was sometimes logistically difficult to shoot but with careful planning and execution we ensured that we were well rehearsed and properly crewed. Overall, it was an exciting project for me to be involved in, and a very positive creative experience.

Mandy and Baz Lurhmann on the set of AUSTRALIA

AFI | AACTA: You’ve won and been nominated for multiple cinematography awards both locally and internationally. For example, you won the AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film for Parklands in 1996 and were nominated for the AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for The Well in 1997, as well as being awarded a number of ACS Awards and the Hollywood DOP of the year in 2008. How does it feel to be regarded so highly by your peers for your craftsmanship?

Mandy Walker: I am very proud and appreciative of this acknowledgement and forever grateful to the people who have given me all my opportunities over the years.

AFI | AACTA: You’ve filmed commercials for a number of big name brands (Chanel No. 5, Dior, Nike, Bonds, Telstra, Audi, BMW etc.) and won numerous awards for your work in advertising, including a Bronze Lion at Cannes Advertising Festival and a Clio Silver Cinematography Award. How does filming a commercial differ to a film?

Mandy Walker: I really enjoy commercials as well as films. Commercials are shorter, more intense than a movie, but always varied. I get to work with many different directors and can often try out new gear, film stock, shooting styles and cameras depending on what the job requires. I also enjoy working regularly with a couple of particular directors, who are very talented and inspiring. Steve Rogers is one Australian director that I try to work with regularly, both in Australia and overseas. I have shot most of my best commercial work with him.

Mandy on the set of a MERCEDES commercial

AFI | AACTA: Do you find that you have a greater level of creative freedom to experiment with shooting styles in advertising? Or are you more restricted by branding and/or commercial interests?

Mandy Walker: Again, it really depends on the director and their vision. A director who is talented will be on a project because of their talent. Most agency’s and clients trust them in their execution, and their choice of cinematographer.

AFI | AACTA: What do you think is the greatest challenge or problem facing cinematographers working within the new digital landscape?

Mandy Walker: I think new digital cameras with extra capabilities and an ever increasing workflow is rapidly changing the digital landscape. Cinematographers have to be up to date. We need to consistently be using and testing new technologies to see what the real advantages and disadvantages are.

AFI | AACTA: Do you have a preferred capture medium?

Mandy Walker: It depends on what the project requires. You need to consider what the main objectives and obstacles are; for example, [the need to be] fast and mobile, or shooting in 3D, or the types of lighting required. Basically, I prefer whatever medium best serves the particular “look” that we are trying to achieve. However, I do think that, at this point in time, film is still the most flexible when it comes to creating different looks in-camera. It still has the highest definition, contrast and colour range available, although some HD cameras are now much more sensitive to low light, and are better for night shooting and/or shooting in 3D.

AFI | AACTA: What has been the highlight of your career so far? And is there some other part of filmmaking that you’d still like to try your hand at?

Mandy Walker: The highlights of my career so far would be: being recognised by my peers; being invited into the Cinematographers guild of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; being accredited by the Australian Cinematographers Society and the American Society of Cinematographers; and most recently becoming a member of the Cinematographers Chapter of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

On the set of RED RIDING HOOD

AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us what you’ve been working on most recently?

Mandy Walker: The last feature I shot was Red Riding Hood. Earlier this year, I also shot a TV movie for ABC America, and since then I have been working on commercials full time.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three mentors or sources of inspiration, who would they be?

Mandy Walker: The first would have to be my Cinema Studies teacher at Preston Technical College, Brian Simpson. He introduced to us a whole world of wonderful films, and taught us about the concept of genre, how a director’s cinematic vision can influence the story and create an atmosphere that affects the audience’s experience of the overall film. I still use the movies he showed me when I was 18 as a point of reference for my own ideas.

The second would be Ray Argall for training me in the camera department and giving me the opportunity to shoot his feature length directorial debut. He gave me a strong understanding and appreciation for the collaboration required between a cinematographer and director.

The third would be Jan Chapman. I was orginally involved in working on an episode of her TV series Naked which was directed by Geoffrey Wright. Jan also introduced me to Shirley Barrett and Ray Lawrence whose films I subsequently went on to shoot. She has always been an amazingly positive and collaborative producer and has greatly influenced my career.

AFI | AACTA: Are you often asked to describe what it is like to be a woman and a mother working in the intense and male dominated craft of cinematography? And if so, how do you respond to such a question? Do you resent it?

Mandy on the set of AUSTRALIA

Mandy Walker: I have never looked at this as an issue in my life or career. I have worked as hard as anybody else in my field and between my husband Stuart and I, we have made sure our daughter Ruby is a big part of our lives and is well looked after. As far as being a woman cinematographer, I see no reason why there are not more of us!

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming cinematographers wanting to break into the industry?

Mandy Walker: I think the most important things are to be dedicated, collaborative, amiable, and willing to try new techniques and equipment. Shoot, try and test the ideas you have, discover what works and what doesn’t. Learn from all of this and be brave. You have to grasp each opportunity and never behave like you know everything because no matter how long you have been shooting there is always something new to learn and discover. At the end of the day, you are there with all the other departments to help tell the film’s story.

AFI | AACTA: What are your all time favourite Australian films or television series?

Mandy Walker: My favourite Australian films are Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, mainly because I love that particular era of Australian filmmaking. For me they are the original representations of an era of Australian cinematic storytelling.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your sharing your time with us.

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Why I Adore… Bliss

By David Evan Giles

When I read the May edition of Why I Adore –  Briony Kidd’s article about Picnic At Hanging Rock (dir. Peter Weir, 1975), it reminded me that Picnic At Hanging Rock was one of the two films that fundamentally changed my mind about Australia. I’d happily wax lyrical about Picnic for another thousand words, but I am going to focus on the other film that grabbed my imagination and gave me a shake. Bliss (dir. Ray Lawrence, 1985) was the other film that rocked my world and rattled loose some ugly, ingrown preconceptions about this country. I want to tell you all about the extraordinary “Bliss effect”, but it will help if I set the scene a little first.

Growing up in London, before Picnic At Hanging Rock came along, all I knew of Oz was based on Rolf Harris on the BBC and the tricky presence of my Australian stepmother. (I don’t mean that Nerelle herself was tricky.  My mother’s early loathing of Nerelle was, on the other hand, pretty spectacularly tricky. Some divorced parents try to be civilized but my mother was made of altogether more incandescent stuff and so she ground her teeth at the sound of a wobble board  – and please didgeridon’t. You get the picture.)

While other boys were learning about soccer teams and the cool makes of car, I was glued to the Saturday afternoon movie, learning by heart the credits as they rolled past on everything from Randolph Scott Westerns to black and white stories of British wartime pluck. One of those films selected apparently at random by the lonely programmer deep in the bowels of BBC Television Centre was Smiley (dir. Anthony Kimmins, 1956), about a kid in the Outback having some very simple, innocent adventures. It is far from a classic, but there was something about Smiley that touched a nerve.  There was space and freedom and an echoing emptiness under vast, limitless skies. Nothing like the life I led in West London. That film made the first crack in my Pommy prejudice.

My ignorant prejudice against Australia as narrow or somehow in the shadow of the Mother Country or, perish the thought, a poor cousin of California, all of those illusions were swept away.

Then, a few years later came Picnic At Hanging Rock. While Briony Kidd’s essay explored the horror genre aspects of Picnic, my friends at University and I were overwhelmed by the sense of loss the film captured so powerfully. The film touched that sense in all of us – we were there at the very beginning of our adult lives, falling as helplessly in love as only the naive and unwounded can, and Miranda walked into our imaginations and vanished, leaving not a footprint behind for us to follow. We yearned and pined en masse. Being privately educated British boys, we felt for Dominic Guard in his feeble scrabbling amongst the rocks even as his incompetence embarrassed us. He did not belong there and neither did we – but then I secretly wanted to discover my inner John Jarratt, the man with hair on his chest and some survival skills who had a much better chance of finding those lost girls. More than anything, I wanted to escape the narrow skies and narrower conventions of the cloisters where I grew up.

And then came Bliss. While Picnic At Hanging Rock is artfully crafted, perhaps helped by the fact that it sits so comfortably in its Gothic horror genre, Bliss, adapted from the novel by Peter Carey, is an exploration of ideas. Despite its three AFI Awards and 10 more AFI nominations, and the close encounter with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, for me it stumbles as often as it succeeds. Its changes in tone and its uneasy shifts between the naturalistic and the surreal make it seem a little awkward. And yet, as I watched it again just last week, the ideas it explores are as affecting today as they were 27 years ago.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter that it is so strange, flipping between the madness of Buñuel and the mundane tedium of the suburbs. Perhaps it is not important that it never settles into a rhythm or a style, or that the cast’s performances swerve between gentle humanity and broad pantomime. Its most recognisable narrative through-line is an improbable love story between a disillusioned advertising executive, Harry Joy (Barry Otto), and a call girl, Honey Barbara (Helen Jones). It doesn’t seem to matter that this comfortable narrative is at odds with the film’s political ambition to expose Western materialism as a sham that causes deceit and suffering, misery and death (or near-death in Harry’s case). In spite of being jarring and genre-crossing, somehow Bliss just works.

There are reasons why this movie works and they cannot be just personal to me. After all, the film was showered with prizes so I am not alone in loving it. What first struck me was how bold it was, technically and artistically. When Harry ‘dies’, the crane shot as he floats above his own body went a very, very long way up – an image so strong that it caused me to hire the DOP on a project years later. When Harry’s wife, played with merciless self-mockery by Lynette Curran, is unfaithful to him while he is lying in bed recovering from open heart surgery, he smells sex on her – and live sardines fall out of her knickers onto the floor of the ward. Apart from the fact that a shot like that would probably not be possible today without losing the Humane Society’s stamp of approval, when I first saw it, I laughed out loud and was awe-struck by the boldness of the idea. My reaction was to think, “If these people have that kind of creativity and ‘bugger what you think of us’ attitude, I want to know more about this culture”. My ignorant prejudice against Australia as narrow or somehow in the shadow of the Mother Country or, perish the thought, a poor cousin of California, all of those illusions were swept away. The whole film was original and bold and, above all, unapologetic.

The American poster for ‘Bliss’ takes a different tone.

Bliss had another effect. Having grown up in England during the height of the industrial chaos of constant strikes and power blackouts, I had developed a leaning towards conservatism. (I know, I know, I could lose my AACTA membership for saying such a thing – but there is a happy ending!) There is a scene in which a disillusioned corporate executive drunkenly reveals to Harry that his company has a ‘cancer map’ – a map showing where all the cancers are concentrated and which industries are in those areas as the probable causes of those cancers. He unfolds a map of NSW marked with cancer clusters and explains that the whole Western world is built on things that cause cancer. That single scene changed how I saw the world. It doesn’t matter that it may be an exaggeration – what matters is that it made sense and matched what I was reading in the newspapers. When lead in petrol was shown to be causing brain damage in children, the oil companies did not go into overdrive to remove the lead – they went into overdrive to delay having to do anything about it. Bliss’s cancer map was telling the truth. I started going green from that moment on.

Ray Lawrence showed such a flash of genius in casting Barry [Otto] for the role and gave him all the support he needed to let him be the heart of the film.

Because this frequently manic film has a split personality, it moves from the frenetic to the serene. After being stuck in a hotel room for days, claustrophobic, chaotic and airless, and then a mental hospital, Harry ends up in a rainforest. Again, this lad from Notting Hill was blown away by the very possibility that you could do such a thing. In England, we had The Good Life on the BBC, where two nice people turn their suburban garden into a self-sufficient mini-farm. It was a warm and funny sitcom – but it was clearly never going to be practical and it didn’t stop them breathing the polluted city air. In Australia, according to Bliss, you could get into your car and drive to a real rainforest.  Just like that. That was very definitely not part of the British experience and it fed the desire to come and be a part of the film culture in Oz.

But more than anything else, what held the film together, and made it make sense, was the humanity of Harry, played by Barry Otto. There is such a fluid quality about Barry’s movements, in how he wears his clothes, and a lyricism in his speech, that all seems to communicate a freedom in his thinking. Ray Lawrence showed such a flash of genius in casting Barry for the role and gave him all the support he needed to let him be the heart of the film. Before Bliss, I had seen Australian actors being bold and strong and stolid. Harry was the first character I had ever come across who was confused and questioning and obviously needing to be brave to ask those questions – the sort of questioning that is more typical of European cinema that deals in shades and colours instead of black and white, yes and no.

Honey Barbara (Helen Jones) and Harry Joy (Barry Otto).

So why do I adore Bliss? I have a list of ‘top ten’ films that stretches to nine pages of A4, but in that list there are relatively few movies that, on their own, have presented an idea so potently that they have prised away a prejudice and opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the world. Kandahar (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001) did it. The Circle (dir. Jafar Panahi, 2000) did it. Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1995) and American History X (dir Tony Kaye, 1998) did it. And Bliss did it in spades.

‘Waiting for the Turning of the Earth’

On a very personal note, I have to close by telling you a small story – and it’s all about hope and tenacity making your dreams become realities. I saw Picnic At Hanging Rock when I was about 20. I saw Bliss when I was about 26. I immigrated to Australia when I was 28. Over the years, I wrote and produced a couple of features and then went into a long mixture of script development hell and personal development purgatory. When I was 49, I was given a grant by Screen NSW to emerge as a Writer-Director and I finally got to direct Anne Louise Lambert  – Miranda from Picnic At Hanging Rock – and Barry Otto together in a short film called Waiting For The Turning Of The Earth, for which I was honoured and deeply touched to receive an AACTA nomination. This was a dream come true for me and a validation of the choices I had made that had led me to that moment. And another reason why I adore Bliss.

About David Evans Giles: David moved from Notting Hill in London to Australia in 1988. After writing and producing a TV series broadcast on Channel 9 (Your Home, one of the first home renovation shows), he teamed up with another writer to create what became Paradise Road, raising a major proportion of the finance for what was then the largest budget in Australian film history. Paradise Road starred Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Pauline Collins and Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and helped to launch Cate Blanchett’s feature career. David co-wrote and produced another feature film, Under The Lighthouse Dancing, starring AFI Award-winning actors, Naomi Watts, Jack Thompson and Jacqueline Mackenzie. The 23 minute short film Waiting For The Turning of the Earth is intended to launch his professional career directing drama. The film was made possible by a grant from Screen New South Wales under the Emerging Filmmakers Fund scheme and since receiving the nomination for an AACTA Award has been selected for film festivals around Australia and the USA. He is currently working on two feature films, The Human Condition, about how cancer is experienced in different parts of the world, and The Falling, a thriller.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City.  Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

Why I Adore: Lantana

By James Madden

First viewings can be overrated. Fairly frequently, I fall in love with a film upon a second viewing. Lantana was one of those experiences. I was a touch too young to see Lantana in its theatrical release. Sure, I could have done so, but at the tender age of 13, Jim Carrey comedies shone brighter on my radar. That is not to say that I hadn’t heard about Lantana. It was so critically acclaimed that upon release at the local video store (at a time not too long ago where videos could still be hired), I instantly snatched it up. After all, I had grown into a mature and worldly 14-year-old by that point.

Genius! An instant classic! Breathtaking Australian cinema at it’s finest! These were words I had heard sung from the heavens by not only critics and through promotional television soundbites, but from close family members too. For me, however, it just simply flew over my head. It wasn’t until the second viewing where I fell deeply and passionately in love.
Like the wild shrub that it is named after, Lantana offers an interconnected vine of characters that are quickly growing out-of-control within their own environment. Though the lantana weed is considered a pest, it also contains simple and beautiful flowers within its thorny vines. This analogy is not lost, and speaks volumes for the characters within the story.

Adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell, based on his play Speaking in Tongues, Lantana presents a multi-strand narrative consisting of four couples in a contemporary Australian setting. Not all couples belong to the same social class, however . The unemployed Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his wife Paula (Daniella Farinacci), a nurse, are working class. Their neighbours Jane (Rachael Blake) and Pete (Glenn Robbins) are lower-middle class with seemingly more money, while detective Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) and his teacher wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) are middle class.  Psychiatrist and author Valerie (Barbara Hershey) and her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), an academic, have enough money to live in a spacious home with a spectacular view.

Each character is caught in moments of quiet, suburban desperation. The underbelly of modern suburbia is not a novel concept, but underpinning this theme is a mystery motif. The opening images present a woman’s body lying apparently motionless amongst the tangled vines of the lantana weed. A connection is later made to the disappearance of psychiatrist Valerie Somers, who never made it home after she ran her car off the road. As the film progresses, the mystery slowly unravels, but in an unusual style. Valerie doesn’t even disappear until half way through the film. Up until then, the principal characters are increasingly intertwining.

Leon begins an affair with Jane after meeting in dance class, while his marriage to Sonja continues to sour. Sonja’s sessions with Valerie reveal the deep connections missing in both of their lives, as the story then follows Valerie home. Her life is surrounded by agonising grief after the murder of her 11-year-old daughter only two years beforehand. Not coping well with the grief, Valerie and husband John are also drifting further apart. Even in the confines of their car, their detachment is obvious.

Having not made a feature film since Bliss in 1985, Ray Lawrence made a big return with Lantana. Lawrence articulates the disintegration of relationships most marvellously and effectively well through use of space and proximity. John and Valerie rarely look at each other while on screen. Their days are spent commuting back and forth from work in the car, where they avoid face to face contact. Barbara Hershey is particularly compelling when Valerie emotionally breaks down in a phone booth. Catching the answering machine, Valerie initially lets John know of her car troubles. After two more phone calls, she psychologically collapses and details her pain. As Valerie opens up, the vast distance becomes strikingly apparent and is in direct contrast to the estrangement that occurs daily within an arm’s length.

Meanwhile, Rachael Blake creates an atypical character in Jane. Cast as the “other woman”, Jane could be seen as a Fatal Attraction-type temptress, bordering on the lines of psychotic stalker. Instead, a portrait of an unhappy housewife is shaped. Jane lives an unfulfilled life, where dreams occupy her reality, as she dances along to Cuban music in her living room with a glass of vodka in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There is a moment where it seems she may become the needy, stereotypical adulteress, but instead she shies back into her insular fantasy world.

As an ensemble, the cast is as good as it gets. While I’ve singled out Hershey and Blake, each key actor could easily be commended on their brilliant portrayals. Impressive chemistry exudes freely and each performance is astonishing. Even the supporting actors are terrific despite little screen time, with noteworthy performances from Leah Purcell, Peter Phelps and Russell Dykstra.

Paul Kelly’s score adds a necessary element of mystery, as well as providing a contemporary suburban foundation. A Cuban/Salsa flavour is added and is most effectively utilised within the final scene as Celia Cruz sings “Te Busco”. Each character is presented in their current and unsure state. While the future may be hopeful, it is anything but certain, and as Leon and Sonja dance, this becomes painfully clear.

About James Madden: James Madden has written for a slew of student newspapers/magazines and online publications including Portable, Upstart and X and Y magazine. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. James founded Film Blerg in 2009 where he continues to slave away and will be a Screen Editor for Farrago magazine in 2012. Many of his inane ramblings can be found here as well as on Twitter @FilmBlerg.

Editor’s Note: More on Lantana

In 2011 AFI | AACTA hosted special ten-year Anniversary Screenings of Lantana in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by Q&A sessions with key cast and crew members. The Melbourne screening of Lantana involved discussion with the film’s producer Jan Chapman and actors Vince Colosimo and Kerry Armstrong. You can watch highlights below, and while the lighting is atrocious, the sound is excellent, and their reminiscences about the production process are fascinating and illuminating.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. Most recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City.  Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, and most recently Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

Special Anniversary Screenings: PROOF and LANTANA

As we celebrate the current line-up of wonderful Australian films competing in the Samsung AACTA Awards, this year, in conjunction with the NFSA, we also look back at two modern classics – Lantana and Proof.  At the time of their release, both films reminded us that Australian cinema could tackle intimate stories of the city, with style, beauty and subtlety.

LANTANA – 10th Anniversary Screening

Winner of 7 AFI Awards, Lantana (2001) was the long awaited return to filmmaking of director Ray Lawrence. An award winning script by Andrew Bovell traced interweaving stories of men and women grappling with grief, infidelity and thwarted desires for intimacy. An ensemble cast includes Anthony LaPaglia, Vince Colosimo, Kerry Armstrong and Rachael Blake – all of whom won AFI Awards for their performances. Taking more than $12 million at the Australian box office, Lantana revealed an audience hungry for intelligent, grown-up stories told with a local accent.

You can watch clips and read curator’s notes for Lantana over here the NFSA’s Australian Screen Online (ASO) website.


Screening as part of the Samsung AFI | AACTA Festival of Film

Sydney: Sunday 30 October, Hoyts EQ, 3.30pm.
Special guest attending for a Q&A after the screening: Director Ray Lawrence, Producer Jan Chapman.

Melbourne: Sunday 16 October, ACMI, 3.30. [This Melbourne event has now taken place and we will be uploading video content shortly.] Special guests attending for a Q&A after the screening: Actors Kerry Armstrong, Vince Colosimo, and Producer Jan Chapman.

AFI | AACTA Members RVSP Links: Members can simply click on the links below for two complimentary tickets.
Sydney: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Sydney_Anniversary_RSVP

Non members are most welcome to these special screenings and can buy tickets from the venue, subject to availability.

PROOF – 20th Anniversary Screening

Winner of 6 AFI Awards and a special mention at Cannes, Proof (1991)was the delicious and blackly comic drama from first time Writer/Director Jocelyn Moorehouse and Producer Linda House. A story about trust, lust and mateship, Proof depicts a triangle of love, hate and betrayal. Hugo Weaving plays a blind photographer, taunted by his spiteful but adoring housekeeper (Geneviève Picot). Both of them are drawn to a friendly kitchen-hand (played by a fresh-faced Russell Crowe). Twenty years later, Proof is as smart, funny and elegant as when it was first released.

You can watch clips and read curator’s notes for Proof over here on the NFSA’s Australian Screen Online (ASO) website.


Sydney: Sunday 23 October, Hoyts EQ, 3.30pm. Guests: Writer/Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, Script Editor P.J.Hogan.

Melbourne: Saturday 15 October, ACMI, 3.30. Guests: Writer/Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, Producer Lynda House, Editor Ken Sallows, Exhibitor Natalie Miller. [This Melbourne event has now taken place and we will be uploading video content shortly]

AFI | AACTA Members RVSP Links: Members can simply click on the links below for two complimentary tickets.

Sydney: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Sydney_Anniversary_RSVP

Non members are most welcome to these special screenings and can buy tickets from the venue, subject to availability.

Both screenings are proudly sponsored by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).