Written by Douglas Whyte.
Tim Winton’s The Turning is obviously an ambitious film. It’s what everyone will say after seeing it. With 18 directors, each with their own cast and crew independently tackling each of the short stories from Winton’s collection of the same name, it’s impossible not to call it ambitious. But that’s the point. How else, if not ambitiously, is an anthology film made? Ambition is admirable. And this quality is the film’s greatest strength.
The Turning revolves around the sometimes-protagonist Vic Lang, his family and the peripheral characters that exist within the small, coastal town of Angelus. Struggling to live within and beyond their own values, we see them moving through the motions of regret, longing, disconnection and reconnection. They turn to the landscape for answers, burying themselves deep into the familiarity of the surf, the bush, and the suburbs. These are the places that are always present, yet not without change. Matters are complicated when their connections become imitative of the landscape, turning from placid to turbulent, light to dark, thoughtful to disengaged.
Characters are interpreted differently from one director to the next. We see Vic as a child in Mia Wasikowska’s ‘Long Clear View’, an Indigenous adolescent in Jub Clerc’s ‘Abbreviation’, and as an adult man in David Wenham’s ‘Commission’ and Ian Meadows’ ‘Defender’. Vic’s wife Gail is portrayed by Cate Blanchett in Simon Stone’s ‘Reunion’ and by Susie Porter in Ashlee Page’s ‘On Her Knees’. Rose Byrne’s character in Claire McCarthy’s titular film is subjected to the violent propensities of Max, who, as a child, we witness maliciously bullying his younger brother in ‘Stephen Page’s Sand’.
In effect, the characters are metamorphic, dreamlike. Critics have already devoured this aspect of the film, complaining how dislocated it makes them feel. I would argue against this, believing that the transformative nature of each character conveys, like Winton’s writing does, a sense of necessary fragmentation. Short stories and short films work with deliberately inconclusive ideas. The characters in The Turning are insecure, unsure of their places in the world, generationally affected, incomplete. What better way to represent their fragility than constantly manipulating their image, an unapologetically conceptual technique.
As an anthology of short films, The Turning is surprisingly consistent. Of course, some of the films are better than others, but this doesn’t mean they do not fit. The films that are most affecting are the ones that work with Winton’s beautifully restrictive prose, that express through tone, music, and gesture, how contained his characters are. Not relying too heavily on dialogue and explanations, trustingly throwing the audience into scenes of established tension. Rhys Graham’s ‘Small Mercies’ is perhaps the best example of this.
Part of me thinks The Turning wouldn’t work as a smooth, faultless film. Seamlessness wouldn’t be doing the characters of Angelus justice. However, the film does fall short of greatness with overly narrated films like ‘Big World’ by Warwick Thorton, and aesthetically tacky split screens in ‘Damaged Goods’ by Anthony Lucas. Other than these small shortcomings, producer Robert Connelly has put together an attractively Australian film that translates Tim Winton’s beloved prose with integrity and skill.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10