More than (I suspect) any other national cinema, Australian movies are littered with cases where a director esteemed for a significant short does not make a successful transition to his or her first feature. This has happened with Tracey Moffatt (Bedevil, 1993), Stavros Efthymiou (True Love and Chaos, 1997), Laurie McInnes (Broken Highway, 1993) and now Sue Brooks. Her short An Ordinary Woman (1987) – a faux-documentary glimpse at the complexities of an 'average' person's life – was a gem.
Brooks' debut feature Road to Nhill – scripted by her regular collaborator Alison Tilson – is, in its way, a continuation of what she achieved in that short. Again, she concentrates on the unspectacular lives of seemingly ordinary women, this time rather older. Again, there is a mock element of reportage, and a digging away to find the truer story camouflaged underneath the banalities, pieties and clichés of daily discourse. Again, there is evidence of a whimsical, even brittle artistic sensibility, which trains a withering gaze on some aspects of the human comedy.
Alas, Road to Nhill does not work very well. The core of the film's plot is deliberately slight. One day, on a country road, a car overturns, with four lady bowlers inside. Most of the film details the fumbling attempts by various members of the local community – cops, fireman, ambulance drivers, the women's friends and husbands – to get to the scene of the accident and set things right.
The film is a comedy of manners, and of errors. It has two guiding themes, both of which are developed heavily and monotonously. The first is grindingly obvious: all men are drongos. I cannot think of a movie in recent memory which so relentlessly and pitilessly targets the male race for its insensitivity, inefficiency and all-round stupidity. Now, this is as valid a theme for comedy as any other – but such an attack needs a little more insight, variation and complexity than is displayed here.
The second theme of the piece takes longer to emerge. It is an exploration into the seeming security of the status quo in a conservative community. Like so many Australian stories about country or suburban life, this one high-handedly takes the facade off everyday tranquillity, and shows, in a modest fashion, a slow dissolution into chaos and uncertainty. Brooks and Tilson ask: when a crisis rocks our common social assumptions, will we actually examine our values?
What cripples the project is its too-fiddly, contradictory, unworkable structure. Atop the mockumentary inserts, the film places a framing narration by God (Phillip Adams) Himself – a narration which starts, stops, and then ridiculously starts all over again for the long, preachy coda of the story.
There are modest virtues in Road to Nhill. The actors – especially Monica Maughan, Alwyn Kurts and Lynette Curran – play their parts with sensitivity, nuance and aplomb. The humour builds up momentum in the second half. One sub-plot, concerning the philandering of a young cop (Matthew Dyktynski), builds to a magnificently directed pay-off. But the film fatally lacks on overall panache, as well as a decent structure that could cohere and strengthen its individual moments of grace.
MORE Brooks: Japanese Story
© Adrian Martin November 1997