THRILLER WINS ON ALL FRONTS Australian Financial Review Weekend Review
By: PETER CRAYFORD 4th November 1988
This year has been such a lean one for Australian films that it is a rare pleasure to be able to review one with enthusiasm. Grievous Bodily Harm is one of the three best Australian feature films released this year.
It is a film noir bathed in sunshine. And like many noir films (such as Double Indemnity, Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep) its plot twists and turns unexpectedly, the narrative powered by a deftly handled sense of suspense.
As with most noir films it is the style which delivers a large part of the punch in Grievous Bodily Harm. The early films in this genre used a heightened realism, shot in atmospheric chiaroscuro, borrowed from the German expressionist films of the silent and early sound era.
In Grievous Bodily Harm Mark Joffe, the director, and his cinematographer Ellery Ryan, have overturned that kind of stylisation and created something all their own. They have taken away the shadows and used their absence to produce an atmosphere of danger and menace. The framing of individual shots and scenes is original and occasionally startling. The opening sequence under the credits reveals a porn video image from a slowly expanding slash in the corner of the screen, and immediately establishes an interest for the audience and a sense of control for the director. And through Sydney's brilliant light, the city is perceived with a fresh eye, devoid of the cliches we have come to expect.
The plot is complicated, as it should be in such a film, but the shape of the narrative is handled with dexterity by Warwick Hind. Essentially three men are in hot pursuit of Claudine (Joy Bell), a high-class prostitute and femme fatale who has set up a fake death abroad to escape a jealous husband. He (Morris Martin played by John Waters) recognises her one night hastily leaving a nightclub. He pursues her around Sydney to the Blue Mountains, killing several people along the way.
On his trail is an investigative journalist, Tom Stewart (Colin Friels), who is chasing a story after receiving a large parcel of cash. And chasing the cash and the killer is a cynical and crooked cop, Ray Birch (Bruno Lawrence). They are all drawn into each other's dilemma which points in one direction -Claudine.
The delusions each man has of this singularly cool beauty are refracted through the images of her they encounter along the way. Her visage appears in photographs, a painting, a sculpture and on video - each a guise for the imposition of a male fantasy. Her image is contrasted with flesh and blood women, particularly Tom Stewart's wife, a down-to-earth nurse with a sensible concern for his, as well as her own, welfare. These illusions men have about women are ultimately destructive.
Grievous Bodily Harm plays with the noir conventions with wit and irony. It doesn't attempt a slavish emulation. The film also displays what is becoming a uniquely Australian morality. In many American and British films the gangsters and criminals get their come-uppance but in Australia crime does seem to pay. Perhaps this is a legacy of the country's founding as a giant prison, or perhaps it is the mythology associated with bushrangers like Ned Kelly - only now they inhabit the cities.
If the essence of a thriller is to maintain suspense without dislocating belief then this film has achieved this aim admirably. It also shows a director with a confident understanding of narrative and pace with a stylishness of considerable promise.
He has also given the actors enough space to shape their performances. Colin Friels, John Waters (much better as a psychopath than a romantic lead) and Bruno Lawrence give impressive, natural performances, helped by a good supporting cast. And the film has a look you can feel in your hip pocket.