Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Cox
Stars: David Wenham, Jacqueline McKenzie, Hannah Fredericksen, Shahana Goswani, Kym Gyngell, Mohan Agasha, , Terry Norris, Genevieve Picot.
Dutch born filmmaker Paul Cox is certainly one of our most prolific filmmakers. A perennial favourite of the Melbourne International Film Festival, his 1979 feature Kostas was the first Australian film to open the Festival. The auteur’s 47th feature fittingly opens the 64th MIFF recently, but I felt it was not the best choice for opening night film. Force Of Destiny is his most personal and intimate film since 1991’s A Woman’s Tale, as it draws upon his own experiences while undergoing a life saving liver transplant a few years ago. Cox draws inspiration from his book Tales From The Cancer Ward, a diary in which he recorded his fears and confronted his own feelings of mortality.
Cox’s surrogate here is Robert (played by David Wenham, a regular in his films), a celebrated sculptor who is diagnosed with liver cancer and given six months to live unless a donor organ can be found. While he waits, Robert reconnects with his family on a deeper spiritual level. While he is separated from his wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie), his relationship with his daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) still remains close. He also finds a second chance at love and happiness with Maya (Shahana Goswani), a marine biologist who works at the local aquarium and is fascinated with Robert’s work.
In a parallel subplot Maya’s beloved uncle (Moshan Agasha) back home in India is also dying of cancer. Maya returns home to be with him in his final days, and there is a strong spiritual element at work in these scenes. This also gives Cox an opportunity to explore some cultural differences in the way that different people deal with death and mortality.
There is a real sense of authenticity surrounding those scenes set in the hospital and regular visits to his doctor, and they have obviously been shaped by Cox’s own experiences. Some key scenes have been filmed in the Austin Hospital, further lending authenticity to the grim material. Paul Grabowski is a regular collaborator on Cox’s films, and here his score delivers the required emotional accompaniment.
In an understated performance Wenham delivers a subtle and nuanced performance as a man confronting his mortality and caught up in his fears and conflicting emotions, and he captures Robert’s angst and desperation as well as his stoic nature. Wenham voices his character’s innermost thoughts, giving us insights into his emotional state. Goswani has a strong and warm presence and lends an emotional depth to the film through her role. Kim Gyngell and Cox regulars Genevieve Picot and Terry Norris round out the small cast.
Force Of Destiny is a poignant film that explores themes of relationships, regrets, illness, death and mortality, which gives it a sombre note. There is not just one man dying of cancer here, but two, which makes it a bit of a downer. But many of Cox’s familiar preoccupations – the beauty of art, relationships, love, spirituality, humanity – are all very much in evidence. But there are also a number of stylistic flourishes and impressionistic touches with some montages of grainy super 8mm footage that unnecessarily stretch the material out by 20 minutes or so.
Cox’s films have always been something of an acquired taste. While undoubtedly delivering some powerful emotional drama, Force Of Destiny is something of a dour and bleak experience that is unlikely to win him any new admirers.