Blessed, 113 mins, rated MA, opens in cinemas 10 September 2009.


(This is my review as published in the Sept 2009 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

7 children wander the streets of Melbourne over the course of one night. Their mothers do not know where they are. We know from overhearing a news bulletin on the radio that the body of a young person has been found floating in the river. Is this one of the 7? Will the 7 make it through the night? Why don’t their mothers know where they are? Do they care? These are the questions posed by Australian director Ana Kokkinos (Head On, The Book of Revelation) in her new feature film, Blessed, which has been selected to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Blessed is structured in 2 parts. In the first half, we follow the journey of the children through the night, seeing everything through their eyes. The film begins with a beautiful montage of sleeping children, but as the camera pulls back we see that some of them are sleeping “rough”.  

As the day goes on we get to know these kids. Katrina and Trisha are street-smart teenaged schoolgirls who swear, smoke, and drink whisky at school, then go shoplifting. Trisha’s brother, Roo, is living on the street. Daniel runs away after his mother accuses him of theft. Brother and sister Orton and Stacey have run away from their incapable mother for reasons that will soon be revealed. And James, a grown-up Aboriginal son (played by the talented Wayne Blair), has different problems.

At last there’s a new dawn, but we are back at the start of the same day. This time we will see all the events from the mothers’ point of view.

In one way this 2-part structure it is very satisfying. After puzzling for an hour over the motivations of the mothers, it is a relief to finally see things from their side. As lawyers know only too well, there are (at least) 2 sides to every story. But keeping the audience in suspense for so long is a delicate thing to pull off, and I don’t believe the film is entirely successful in maintaining that balance.  By the end of the first hour, I was impatient at being kept in the dark about so much.

The second half of the film is also fragmented, of course, because it needs to tell each of the mothers’ stories. Again, this kind of storytelling is hard to get right: just as you get into one story, the film cuts to another one.  But on the whole the experienced Australian editor, Jill Bilcock, keeps the multiple stories on track to their individual resolutions.

The film was adapted from the play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, commissioned by the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre and first performed at the Victorian Trades Hall Council in 1998. 4 writers were commissioned to write a play that would deal with various political, social, and economic issues. The film differs from the play in focusing more closely on the relationships between the mothers and the children.

The downbeat mood of the Blessed is relieved by 3 outstanding virtues. First, it looks great. Distinguished Australian cinematographer Geoff Burton (Sunday Too Far Away, Storm Boy, The Sum of Us) teams with the production designers to create a warm beauty on the mean streets of Melbourne. And extreme close-ups show the beauty and humanity of all the faces.

Next, the 4 writers involved are top class: Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsiolkas largely avoid the temptation to spill over into soap opera. They, together with director Ana Kokkinos, look always for the bigger picture.

Finally, all the actors are superb. Miranda Otto, Frances O’Connor, Deborra-Lee Furness, playing 3 of the mothers, are top Australian actors. Miranda Otto is particularly powerful in a scene where she confronts her image in a mirror.  The children, too are excellent: Sophie Lowe (Beautiful Kate), Anastasia Baboussouras, Eamon Farren, and Reef Ireland stand out with pitch-perfect performances.

It’s a fair bet that if you see this film at the cinema, and you’re a parent, you’ll want to rush straight home to your kids, give them a big hug, and tell them you love them.