A tour de force in its way and a simmering wonder, mostly, of great acting and fine directing, Fred’s awed glance at White’s World is nonetheless arch and portentous, expensive, smug and windy, and a crashing failure as drama.
Playing upperclass, boarding-schooled Australians raised rich in the 1930s, Davis and Rush correctly brandish the off-BBC accents of the time, but their rich Edwardian mother Charlotte Rampling sounds more like a Darlinghurst landlady. Though she has been lifelong a thundering snob and her two children both have titles — hers by marrying a Spanish prince, his by playing Shakespeare well in England — she despises them both from her deathbed, thinking them of little account or pedigree or moral worth. Though hers was a life of shopping, partying, petty adultery and tormenting servants (one, played by Helen Morse, is an Auschwitz survivor forced nightly to dance lewd Weimar cabaret acts in the manner of Sally Bowles in her late middle age), she judges her life on earth a better one than theirs, and we never see why.
Too much else is likewise unexplained. Sir Basil Hunter, the actor (Geoffrey Rush), a casual schtupper of loose-mouthed chambermaids, has nonetheless no titled wife nor hellcat mistress nor renegade children to speak of, but we are not told why. Dorothy de Lascabanes, the Princess (Judy Davis), has broken off with her titled husband, it seems, an international scandal, surely, like Grace busting up with Rainier, but we are not told why. Elizabeth Hunter, the mother (Charlotte Rampling) lived apart from her husband, he in the sumptuous farmhouse, she in the city mansion, for a decade or so, but we are not told why, what provoked it, what they had in place of a sex life, how it was managed, and how the money was made. Not much is told of the two important men in the women’s lives, and we don’t know why.
And what we are told comes in sudden impulsive self-knowing soliloquies like those in Eliot’s The Family Reunion, haughty and wise and stoic, in dialogue (by Judy Morris) more like ill-wrought performance-poetry than any known species of human speech in any recent Australian or British era. The actors struggle mightily with it, and sometimes prevail. A sort of substitute reality is achieved, and it works quite vividly now and then. Helen Morse as the high-kicking Auschwitz songstress, ever expecting, awake or asleep, the jackboots’ dread return, steals the picture, or does for a while. And then her fate, self-slaughter in a bath full of blood — for fear, we are told, of a life without Madam or employment as a cleaning person in Australia, 1972 –- is almost laughable. But there you go. Patrick said it, and the novel allegedly got a Nobel Prize for it. It must make sense, it must, somehow or other.
Judy Davis remains one of the greatest screen actresses in world history and is no slouch here either, on the tremulous edge of childless menopause, frustrated artistic impulse, foolish marriage and what for a while we think may be incestuous longing. Rampling is well-used. Rush gets well that edgy anglicised fraudulence one saw in those days in Helpmann, Michel, Fiander, Barrett, Blakemore, Colson, his fear of England, his greater fear of home. We are told his Lear failed, but not what Shakespeare parts he did well in. We hear at the end he is a playwright also, and that is a surprise. Friels plays well a kind of Bob Hawke running as Labor leader in 1972 for Prime Minister (and groping, as one does, the socialite in the back seat of the chauffeured Commonwealth Car), and that comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who voted that year for Gough Whitlam, a different sort of man; and so does the shimmering, white, uprearing Opera House, in that year still a dowdy concrete skeleton. Alexandra Schepisi is fine as Flora the below-stairs slut (watched closely in the naked love scenes in take after take by her father, the director), but a shock too when she goes with Basil’s growing foetus back to her working-class boyfriend and he takes her, thus encumbered, and embellished, in, and the London Sunday papers are not informed.
What is not a shock is that the woes of the idle rich do not much move a working-class and peasant country, not as much at any rate as Snowtown or Mullet or Australian Rules or The Dish or Newsfront. We identify with people who work for a living, or we usually do. We identify with people who bear children, but neither titled sibling in this movie does. We are not told why.
The best performances, probably, are by John Gaden and Robyn Nevin, as the stitched-up solicitor Arnold (lover once, like most men, of Elizabeth, the towering bitch) and his prim wife Lal. These are upper-middle-class people on a human scale, keeping their traumas to themselves and getting on with their minor, busy, pursed existences, and not billowing into shoals of chopped-up blank verse in the Patrick, Fred or Judy Morris way.
What a crabbed and rancorous old shit Patrick was. And how well this film, inadvertently, shows it.
What Schepisi was doing anywhere near it is a puzzle.