However unsavoury it may appear to contextualise a critical moment in women’s rights with the same treatment given to a selfie, there is no denying the impact #metoo has had on contemporary filmmaking. This cinematic new age, a world that is further empowering female filmmakers to take control of their representation, recognises “#metoo films” as being synonymous with identifying toxic societal attitudes, discomforting truths, and scathing political assessments that are about as easy to swallow as a jagged rock.
#metoo has become a genre in and of itself.
The spread of #metoo’s influence has not gone unnoticed here in Australia, with acclaimed films helmed by women such as The Nightingale and Judy & Punch offering unflinching examinations on contemporary women’s issues. The latest addition to this fold of powerfully told, women-lead Australian films is writer-director Miranda Nation’s intoxicating meditation on femininity and grief, Undertow.
A psychological-thriller that doesn’t so much rattle the patriarchal glass ceiling as it does smash through it, Undertow applies the necessary genre conventions needed to offer a hard-hitting assessment on the harmful societal attitudes directed at women. The exploration of this, which Nation handles with both care and aplomb, ranges from the miasma of toxic masculinity to the profound yet rarely seen relationship a woman has with her body. The former, told from the perspective of photojournalist Claire (a powerhouse performance from Laura Gordon), a woman bound by grief following a tragic loss.
On the winding path to recovery following said trauma, Claire comes into contact with Angie (Olivia DeJonge), a 21-maybe-19-maybe-16-year-old girl with an unknown connection to the football community; perhaps connected to Claire’s partner Dan (Rob Collins) and ‘off-the-rails’ footy player Brett (Josh Helman). Claire’s emotional state proves to be but another barrier on her path to recovery, with even the faintest sign of blood triggering her grief.
The unfurling mystery behind Angie’s connection to Dan and Brett pushes the already distraught Claire further into the emotional ringer. Nation composes her effort with all the trimmings of a compelling thriller, albeit one grounded with a sense of purpose as to denounce female disenfranchisement. It’s all elevated by a sublime cast, who prove utterly convincing and committed in their respective roles.
How Claire’s grief manifests, impairing her grasp on what is real and what is not, allows Undertow to offer insight into the complexity of bodily trauma — a trait shared, but expressed differently, with Angie. Nation empowers this real-versus-imaginary trope to jolt Claire back into the present; it’s a feat that positions Claire’s grief as debilitating as it is frequent.
Undertow uses female nudity as an empowering factor – without sexualisation, and it’s as effective as the film’s symbolic references to water. The decision to depict femininity in all its natural form demonstrates brazenness from a filmmaker willing to challenge societal conventions. And again, Nation ensures that it’s a creative choic that works among the genre leanings on display.
Further troubling subject matter is unpacked with Nation’s characterisation of Brett, a beloved footy star with an off-field party boy persona. Feeling ripped straight off the headlines, the nonchalant manner whereby misogyny can be shrugged-off allows Undertow to dissect the extent that some men can be excused, if not protected, despite clear misconduct. Having this be extrapolated to an institution that’s become notorious for its paltry treatment of women – and often championing morally questionable people – expresses one of several articulate points made by Nation on the current frustrations in the fight for gender equality.
To look back on the present day with learned eyes, you’d be remiss for being unable to recognise a defining moment in culture where influential female voices pioneered Australian storytelling — the broader implications of this working to breakdown damaging attitudes and behaviours that threaten to regress women’s rights. While not to position Undertow as the harbinger of salvation, it proves yet another powerful example of a cultural evolvement, and of Australian filmmaking excellence.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Undertow’ opens in limited Australian cinemas on March 5.