Praise - rated - SIMMERING

This film left me breathless and twitching! Breathless due to the fact that everybody in the film, including Gordon, our "hero," chain-smokes relentlessly. It's even worse since Gordon (Peter Fenton) has asthma. He wheezes and coughs in a most distressing fashion. And twitching, because our heroine, Cynthia , has eczema all over her body and scratches 'til it bleeds. I can't tell you how sorry I felt for this character! I had bad eczema (and asthma) as a child, and I spent quite a bit of my time either scratching my skin or trying to tickle it to ease the pain. I kept wanting to squeeze ointment onto Cynthia's poor torn flesh.

These are two sad and sorry characters. Gordon is completely unmotivated, lethargic and terminally depressed. He's completely at home in a seedy boarding-house full of down-and-out old men. Cynthia (Sacha Horler in a brilliant characterisation) is sex-crazed and desperate for love. For a while she is able to breathe some life into Gordon, at least to the extent of inspiring him to do something about his lacklustre sexual abilities. For a while, it seems, each has found the ideal mate. But real life is more complicated, more cruel than that...

Praise , based on the much-praised novel by Andrew McGahan, is a completely original film: it explores aspects of relationships that don't usually get too much attention. It doesn't spend a lot of time on the "getting to know you" phase. We skip straight to the nitty-gritty of the sex. She wants it all the time and he's having trouble living up to her needs. This is pretty funny - and absolutely frank to the point of being ugly. It's certainly raw. But it's not just for prurience: There's a real point being made. The seeds of the destruction of the relationship are being sown as we look on.

So far, so good. The story is told well, and the actors are directed with assurance. The performers excel in their own different ways. Sacha Horler is by far the more accomplished actor of the two. She is quite astonishing. In her, both raw emotion and life-blood lie close to the surface of her skin. But first-time film actor Peter Fenton (he's a musician in real life) brings an intelligence to a very passive role, and that's what stops us from being irritated and losing patience with his character. There's a tenderness and a relaxed intimacy between the two that feels just right. And yet there's the tension of two people ignoring their differences for their own reasons. The balance is exquisitely held by all concerned.

The cinematography is a star in its own right. It's arresting: the talented Dion Beebe manages to photograph the dingy boarding-houses, pubs and flats that these people inhabit in a way which shows the subtle changes of the bright sunlight of Brisbane (the film is set in Brisbane but it was actually shot in Sydney). The sub-tropical , bright, humid environment lurks outside, and is rarely encountered, but is most unsettling. These people are night-creatures. The sun might harm them. But for us, when the film opens out in the scenes when Gordon visits his parents at Christmas, we can see and breathe again at last.

But for me, the film does not really take off and soar until the arc of the relationship begins its curve towards a break-up. Now we see Gordon come to the realisation that he doesn't want to stay with Cynthia. He's not a bastard: he's there for her when he's needed, but he knows it can't go on forever. This is when the film slows down, and shows us Cynthia's intransigence in some detail: "I won't give in" she says, and we watch her hanging on desperately. Now Gordon's lethargy becomes excruciating. He won't kick her out and she won't leave, but it's over. Cynthia is true to her heartbreaking philosophy about why she'll accept sex without love. "It's better than nothing" is what she said then. "I won't give in" is what she says now, and she won't.

For the closing scenes, the film shifts focus to Gordon, and loses a bit of momentum. It is then that we really appreciate the dynamism of Cynthia, and miss the kinetic force that Sacha Horler brings to the role. But in such a film, a downbeat ending strikes the right note. There are no happy endings for someone like Gordon. Life can be a bitch, especially if you live in Brisbane.