A bit of a quandary
I’ll admit it – I am oftentimes one of these New Zild film naysayers, who despairs at Sam Neill’s coined “cinema of unease” but neither can live with the notion that the LOTR trilogy is all that we’re good at. So I went to see Predicament with no expectations and next to no insight about the story. And I was richly rewarded.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not the sort of film-goer who assumes that anything Jemaine Clement is in must be side-splittingly funny (I’ve learned from Ricky Gervais experience that a hit TV show guarantees nothing). And I can’t see how an Australian comedian who makes his living portraying a notorious Aussie criminal could possibly be much of a dramatic actor. And casting old Tim Finn, one half of the Brothers Finn and a fifth of Split Enz, as the crazy dad?? This risked having the word “gimmick” smeared all over it.
Director/writer Jason Stutter has in fact produced a work that expands the legacy of New Zealand filmmaking into something altogether more interesting, and less uneasy, than we’re used to on these shores. Taking a Ronald H. Morrison novel (a local author who knew greater acclaim in Australia, ironically) set in a small town in Taranaki, Stutter and his crew have created a 1930s Hawera that is stylistically more reminiscent of Amelie‘s Montmartre than the usual bleak, grey-skied landscapes of our black comedies and dramas.
I have not read the source material, and having read a damning review of the film by a disgruntled NZ-based viewer, I wonder whether that in fact worked in my favour – judging the movie purely on what it displayed, and not what it missed or lacking, I can only assess it on its own merits.
The story is a fairly straightforward noirish tale of double-crossing, blackmail and sexual intrigue, similar themes to those replete in other 1930s fare such as the Agatha Christie oeuvre (without the whodunnit aspect). It’s the art direction (all golden hues and use of only those colours strictly predetermined), the production design (fitting out the dilapidated old house must have been a joy), and the cinematography (swooping crane shots and fish-eye-lensed close-ups) that give this film its edge. Sure, it’s similar to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s work (the aforementioned Amelie, as well as A Very Long Engagement, Delicatessen and the recent Micmacs) – and it must be noted that Peter Jackson did beautiful things with Heavenly Creatures and (ahem) the splatter films of this early career. But I haven’t seen something like this for a while, and it came as a welcome relief to be transported to something of a fairy-tale land where the characters spoke with familiar Kiwi accents.
The performances are mostly terrific (excepting a few underwritten cliches, mainly the supporting women characters whose only action is to be caught in flagrante delicto) and comedians Clement and Chopper (sorry, Heath Franklin) are delightful as the conniving pair who incite young Cedric Williamson (spectacularly cartoon-faced newcomer Hayden Frost) to criminal behaviour. Finn is one of the few failings in my view, an unnecessary casting choice that risks being a distraction except that his doddery dad is thankfully silent for most of the film.
It’s not perfect – the energy fades towards the end of the 2nd act, and the story isn’t sufficiently clever to justify any thought on the audience’s part. But it’s a well-made, beautifully shot movie that has in my view opened the windows and let in some long-needed sunshine to our usually gloomy land of hobbits, murder and family secrets. Stutter’s next predicament must surely be deciding what to follow this with…