Passion - rated - TEPID

The Bio-pic (like breaking up) is hard to do. After I saw this film I was thinking that, even after 102 minutes, I still didn't know who Percy Grainger really was. Then after a while one of the lines in the film popped into my head. It is spoken by Grainger (played by Richard Roxburgh) to his girlfriend Karin (played by Emily Woof). She is trying hard to "master" the piano and achieve a concert career. Grainger says to her words to the effect of "Do you really think whether or not you conquer this beast [indicating the piano] matters as much as your marvellous life?" I realised that there it was: the essence of Percy Grainger. The reasons why he was so eccentric, so unpredictable, so full of promise but never one of the great names of music. He loved life in all its aspects! He was not prepared to dedicate himself to one pursuit - the classical piano - over all his other passions.

So, for me, the film passed one test of a successful bio-pic. It gave me one critical insight into what drove the man - what made him who he was. And that's a pretty high achievement.

But I have only given this film a pass mark (I rated it "Tepid") because despite that one critical achievement, it has so many other shortcomings. One major shortcoming is that it feels incomplete. It leaves so much out about Percy Grainger. For one thing, it assumes that the audience has some knowledge of the man and his life. I think that's pretty unlikely, for most people. For another thing, even though it deals frankly with some of Percy's sexual obsessions, such as excessive mother-love and some very enthusiastic flagellation, bondage and discipline, it still skimmed and skirted around so much. I was astonished when the film finished: I felt like one critical reel of the film was missing.

Passion is miles away from films like Shine (Scott Hicks,1996) or even Hilary and Jackie. (Anand Tucker, 1998) It is much more detached. It does not have the emotional immediacy of those two films. On the other hand, in its favour, you could say that those films were classic melodrama - that they went for the simplistic "explanation" of why their subjects were so troubled, and that life just isn't like that, especially if you are a genius. The writers and the director of Passion don't seem to want to deal with why Percy is like he is - he just is. They show us that he accepts himself as he is. They challenge us to do the same.

That's a valid and noble aim, but I don't think the filmmakers quite brought it off. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that some of the frictions which accompanied the film's development show up in the final product. The finished film seems to show signs of production wear-and-tear, and the involvement of a few too many writers. The screenplay of the film is based on the play "Percy and Rose" by Rob George "in collaboration with" Maureen Sherlock. The original screenplay was by Rob George and the acclaimed novelist Peter Goldsworthy. But the film was "written by" political advisor Don Watson. That sort of billing makes it seem as if the journey from page to screen was not an entirely smooth one. Add to that the facts that:

(a) director Peter Duncan was hired to make the film after the original director and the producers parted ways; and
(b) there was another film version of Percy Grainger's life (I think it was called something like Blue Rose) which was vying for finacing at the same time as Passion and lost out at a fairly late stage,

so you get the feeling that the filmmakers might have felt somewhat fraught.

Compare that sort of pedigree with the genesis of Shine, which was a 10-years plus labour of love by director Scott Hicks and his team. The critical difference between the Shine and Passion is, ironically, consistent and intense passion. In the final analysis, Passion lacks passion!

But then again Richard Roxburgh was born to play Percy Grainger! He's a very passionate actor (I saw his extraordinary performances in Hamlet and Burn This for the Sydney Theatre Company) and he brings as much passion and fire as he can to the role. Barbara Hershey never seems to nail her role as Percy's mother Rose, who suffered from syphilis in the days when the "cures" were almost as bad as the disease. She has her moments, particularly in her first "mad" scene, when she goes all red and blotchy and throws herself onto the floor. However, she is clearly overshadowed by the other syphilitic character in the film, John Grainger (Percy's father), who is played brilliantly by Bille Brown. In a few short scenes, Brown creates a memorable and moving portrait of a shattered and critically-ill man.

Simon Burke, and particularly Claudia Karvan, are excellent in their roles as Danish friends of Percy's. Emily Woof seems at first to be impersonating Claudia Karvan, but eventually she comes into her own in her role as Percy's girlfriend.

I have a few other, minor quibbles with the film. It was far too easy to see when Duncan was filming London in Australia - the light gave it away, as did the robust and tanned bodies of the barrow-boys lining up to enlist for World War I. The opening of the film was a worry - the dialogue seemed trite and there was too much quick cutting. It seemed to me that the director was rushing to set the scene and give us all the detail we needed to bring us up-to-date so as to enable him then to slow to a leisurely pace to cover the period of the film. And the important conversation between Rose and Percy's patroness/ lover (played by the excellent Linda Cropper) was marred by almost impenetrable dialogue. And yet this was meant to be a critical explanation of Rose's attitude to her almost-incestuous relationship with Percy. And I could have done without the shockingly clichéed close-up of the tea trolley which punctuates this scene - but now I'm really nit-picking!

Still, as I have said, the news isn't all bad. Passion marks a new maturity in the filmmaking of Peter Duncan (Children of the Revolution, A Little Bit of Soul). He has graduated from fairly silly and piecemeal comedy to serious biography. It's just a pity that Percy Grainger emerges from that biography as a weird bundle of attributes rather than a whole person.