For the second year in a row, The Australian Film Festival opened at the Randwick Ritz in Sydney last night. Eschewing the opportunity to once again address the state of the Australian film industry, festival director Barry Watterson (who addressed the topic at length in the Sydney Morning Herald this week) stated the mission of the festival succintly: “We have films”.
Speaking at the opening of the festival, Watterson said that in selecting the eclectic mix of Australian films found on the program, he was “not fussed where the money came from”. He added “If we can see Australian handprints on it, we’ll show it”. To illustrate this, he points to Ana Bisiesto (Leap Year), which may actually be shot and produced in Mexico, but was written and directed by Australia’s Michael Rowe. It also won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Best First Feature, showcasing the international success of Australian filmmakers. Also addressing the audience was the director, Amanda Jane, and various members of the cast including Steve Bisley. Other special guests on the night included the New Zealand-born/Sydney-based Roy Billing.
The Wedding Party, the debut feature of Jane, focuses on the down-on-his-luck Steve (Josh Lawson, Hawke). Steve has run into some financial problems, but is desperate to get back with his estranged girlfriend (Kestie Morassi, The Illustrated Family Doctor). Looking for a get rich scheme, Steve answers a classified ad and agrees to marry the beautiful Russian Anna (Isabel Lucas, The Waiting City) so that she may gain citizenship, and he may gain some hard-earned cash. As the plan spirals out of control, we see how it impacts on the lives of not just Steve’s immediate family – including his separated mother (Heather Mitchell, Griff the Invisible) and father (Steve Bisley, Red Hill) – but of the friends and family that surround them.
The Australian market isn’t exactly overcrowded with rom-coms, with the exception of the recent I Love You Too, and local audiences are typically treated to domestic drama instead. The Wedding Party is something of a hybrid of the two, taking an ensemble approach to both the comedy and drama, offering something a little bit different. Lucas is a likeable enough leading man, using the stammering funny-man persona that fits in perfectly with the world of the romantic comedy, and one that is gradually making him a rising star. In fact, all of the cast is quite good in their respective roles, although the sheer number of storylines may stretch the premise somewhat. Veteran performers Ronda Burchmore, Nadine Garner, Essie Davis, Steve Bisley and Heather Mitchell act alongside some of the relative newcomers (such as Nikita Rover-Pritchard), and all are given their due for better or for worse. Every couple is given their own mini-drama within the narrative, giving contrasting views of what love and relationships mean for different people. While this adds a generally absent depth to the typically formulaic genre, it also extends the plot long past the point of caring. It doesn’t particularly help that every man, woman and especially child are often some of the most obnoxious human beings, with motivations (especially in the case of Essie Davis’ shrewish jealous wife) never fully explained.
As the film winds its way to the inevitable conclusion, complete with the standard “running through the streets to declare love” sequence, there is at least half-an-hour of denouement that could have readily been cut without losing any drama. For a film obsessed with sex and masturbation – it is no stretch to say that one or the other, including frequent visits to sex shops and S & M clubs, appears in every other scene – the treatment of the subject is surprisingly coy and superficial. Frustratingly, with the exception of the main narrative, very few of the stories are wrapped up by the time the credits eventually roll. While this may be true to ‘real life’, it is counter to the boundaries that this otherwise standardly plotted film has set for itself. The Wedding Party is certainly not the typical local offering of suburban angst, but it is still careful enough to pay heavy homage to this obligatory slice-of-life look at Australia. It is a promising start from a new director, and it will be interesting to follow Jane’s career as she continues to find her own voice.
The Reel Bits: This slightly different take on the suburban rom-com is different enough to offer a crowd-pleasing opener for this growing film festival. A wealth of Australian acting talent bolsters the otherwise predictable tale that still manages to offer a few more laughs than the average bear.
The Wedding Party screened at the Australian Film Festival on 2 March, 2011. The Australian Film Festival runs from March 2 through 13, and also includes a selection of short films on the Sunday 13 at the Ritz. For more details see theAustralian Film Festival website.