Hopping a slow tramp steamer to China to avoid rough American justice, beset by pirates on the high seas and kidnapped, accepted as one of their own, and subjected to months of rum, sodomy, and the lash: oh, that some dramatic tale had motivated my exile in Australia. Alas, it hasn’t, and as I near the end of my extended working holiday down under, the 55th Sydney Film Festival has risen to take over the core of the rain-besieged city that I have called home for the past six months. Two and a half weeks will witness nearly 200 films sprawled over five downtown cinemas, across a number of loosely collated subjects. A generous soul would call it ambitious, the more curmudgeonly might say wanton and confused, but to take a more moderate assessment, the SFF, like TriBeCa, lacks a singular ambition in the name of being all things to everyone. But it is opportunistic: on hand there is an Australian section, a mini Carlos Reygadas retrospective to accompany his spare and distressed Silent Light, an Asian alley coinciding with Beijing 2008 preparations, a Mexican sidebar to capitalize on the Cuarón-Iñárritu-del Toro axis hubbub, and a “World Views” omnibus with festival stalwarts Sokurov, Chabrol, and Hong Sang-Soo. The SFF is also the latest institution to explore the dubiously ever-never-emergent revolution of Machinima, balancing its geek cachet with an homage to Deborah Kerr. Iraq war documentaries, the current nonfiction vogue, find a prominent place, nestled alongside something called “Art Cinema,” non-war docs, and a slate of films about musicians and performance. The view from the outset is of a bewildering mess, and as I slog through it all, I’ll be sending out missives as frequently as is practical.
With an overture at international relevance, the 2008 Sydney Film Festival is also the first to host an official competition, twelve films feted at the State Theatre, a rococo picture palace functioning as the festival’s central hub, each vying for the newly minted Sydney Film Prize A relatively recent release seems to be the only qualifying criteria for competition films, as In Bruges opened Sundance 2008 and a few others were seen last month at Cannes, but not even that limits the inclusion of Silent Light, which shared the Jury Prize at Cannes 2007, nor My Winnipeg, which was feted with Best Canadian Feature at Toronto 2007.
The opening night gala is a statement of a festival’s ambitions, and by that barometer, the SFF’s selection of Happy-Go-Lucky is a dreary portent. Unexpectedly however, director Mike Leigh makes a foray into light comedy, rather than proffering his familiarly austere slice o’ social realism. It seems perverse, but would that he stayed in his bleak house. Leigh’s gambol through the suburbs is a benumbing dollop of middlebrow pablum, following a plucky primary school teacher as she toddles around North London’s not-quite-hardscrabble streets. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) brings light and laughter to those she meets with a well-chosen bon mot or a saucy double entendre. She a spirited gal who’ll laugh off her bike being stolen with a “Ding-dang-dilly-dilly-da-da-hoo-hoo” or try to crack through the hard exterior of her emotionally stunted driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan): “Now for the cockpit drill,” says he. “Oooooh, naughty,” retorts Poppy with a nod, a wink, and a sparkle in her eye. Despite her unvarnished surface, this heavily-accented lass has a heart of gold, compensating for 30-odd wastrel years by rescuing one of her abused pupils, and taking an after-work detour to minister a lunatic-fringe homeless man. She’s living paycheck to paycheck, but, by gum, Poppy is living life out loud, to an extent more full and rewarding than any of the champagne-socialists queuing up for a weekday matinee, because that’s what the lower middle class does.
At moments like these, when a venerated director debases himself with low expectations—and then is unable to meet them—I’m looking for some hint of irony, an inkling that a keen mind is at work undercutting the syrupy keep-your-sunny-side-up homily. But as charitable as I might be, I’m simply unable to find anything but vapidity, layer upon layer. Leigh, so sensitive and deft at mining the grit and pathos of bleak working-class life, fails spectacularly at achieving even modest competence or creating any characters that remotely register as human. Figures like Scott-the-Christian are hollow vessels left to rattle around with a repository of racist-sexist-homophobic tendencies, signifying nothing and springing from the shelf, readymade, to represent a particular demographic—and then returned, musty from overuse, to storage. An expectant mother cautioning her sisters against impending spinsterhood; a meek and henpecked husband; a ¬fiery Spanish flamenco teacher; a cadre of wiseacre mates bemoaning the want of good men and always up for a big night out—this is the best you’ve got? More than lumpen characters thrust into stock situations, they engage in repartee as rote as a laundry list, though no doubt intended to sparkle with rough-hewn charm. Nor is there any blood to the litany of societal ills—childhood obesity, poverty, inequality—discussed over glasses of white wine with flat cue-card rapidity and forgotten just as soon. In addressing these issues Leigh seems to view anything at arm’s length of subtlety with heavy contempt. If I were being mean, I’d aver that the film is weak-tea “art” cinema for a senescent generation, except that it doesn’t deserve brimstone criticism. It’s too mediocre even for anger. —JAMES CRAWFORD