Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Matthew Saville
Stars: Tom Wilkinson, Joel Edgerton, Jai Courtney, Melissa George, Sarah Roberts.
One particular genre that Australian filmmakers seem to get right is the gritty crime drama – films like Animal Kingdom and the underrated and criminally ignored The Square are amongst some of the finest in the genre and mix violence with some laconic humour. The forthcoming Cut Snake is a generic noir like drama but it is also quite hard-hitting and violent.
Chosen to close the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Felony comes across like one of those dramas directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet and mixes elements of the familiar police procedural with morally ambivalent character study. This is the new film from director Matthew Saville, who burst onto the scene in 2007 with the award winning Noise. He has spent several years working on television dramas like the acclaimed The Slap, etc, but his return to the big screen is quite assured and tense and explores some tricky ethical issues. He is working from a fine script written by actor Joel Edgerton, who also wrote The Square. Felony is a morally ambiguous crime drama about basically decent cops making some bad choices and then having to deal with the consequences of their decisions. The ending itself is wonderfully ambiguous and it will certainly have audiences talking and interpreting it in different ways.
Edgerton himself plays Malcolm Toohey, a good cop with a bit of a temper. After a successful raid on a drug smuggling operation, Toohey and his colleagues knock back a few drinks to celebrate. Then Turner decides to drive home, even though he knows he has had a bit too much to drink. On the way he clips a kid delivering newspapers on his bicycle. At first Toohey lies to the paramedics and police about the accident, telling them that he found the boy lying on the road. Then the lies take on a life of their own, when senior detective Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson), his mentor, arrives and coaxes Toohey through an acceptable version of events to ensure that there is no further investigation. Summer is not a corrupt cop, but rather one who is just trying to protect the reputation of a fellow officer and the force itself.
One lie leads to another. But things threaten to unravel when rookie cop Melic (Jai Courtney) decides that he is not satisfied with Toohey’s story and investigates further, which creates tension between the three men.
The aftermath of a hit and run accident is a great premise for drama, and it has been the main plot device of a number of films, including The Crossing Guard, the Russian drama The Major, and the Korean film A Hard Day. Edgerton takes the familiar concept though and gives it a rather cynical spin in this drama that explores issues of guilt, the abuse of power, mateship, family and marital discord.
There was once a time when there was a sort of cultural cringe attached to importing international actors for Australian films, but the reality is that it helps to get overseas sales for our little films. And Wilkinson brings gravitas and authority to a role written with him in mind, even as he taps into the character’s darker nature. He has a strong presence and is easily the strongest and most compelling performance in the film. He dominates every scene he is in with an easy air of menace.
Courtney, whose overseas career has started to take off in a big way with roles in big budget action films like the Divergent franchise, A Good Day To Die Hard with Bruce Willis and Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise, makes the most of a role that requires him to actually deliver a more nuanced performance as an eager young cop with a strong sense of morality who has to learn the fine art of compromise.
Edgerton, who has a strong physical presence that was put to good use in films like Warrior with Tom Hardy, gives a more soulful, restrained and nuanced performance as the conflicted and vulnerable Toohey. He brings his internal struggle to the fore as he agonises over whether to confess to what he has done or remain quiet and hope it all goes away. Former soapy star Melissa George (Home And Away, etc) gets her best role for quite some time and offers solid support as his wife Julie, who is more concerned about protecting her family than the truth of what happened. And newcomer Sarah Roberts is also very good as the mother of the victim.
Saville gets the pacing just right, and he slowly ratchets up the suspense. As with his debut film, Saville explores the murky moral gap between truth and lies. Felony may be a low budget film but it looks great thanks to some great location work and the suitably moody cinematography of Mark Wareham (Underbelly, Redfern Now, etc).