The Well - Rated:TEPID

I wanted to like this film (I want to like most new Australian films), but I didn't like this one. In fact I almost nodded off. And that was after I almost called for the projectionist when the film started, because I thought we'd begun with the second reel! The first scene is like a "flash forward" to a time well after Hester and Katherine, the two main characters, meet. That scene is a real mistake. It throws you into the middle of a relationship which needs to unfold gracefully and gradually. I never really caught up. So, for me, the crucial relationship between Hester and Katherine had no foundation, and lacked substance.

Pamela Rabe and Miranda Otto are two of my favourite actors, and their performances have their moments. But the script, by Laura Jones (who scripted High Tide, An Angel at my Table,The Portrait of a Lady and Oscar and Lucinda) doesn't give them much help. The book, by Elizabeth Jolley, must be more meaty than the script to have been so popular.

In this film, we see many scenes which look beautiful and intriguing. But they just leave us more clueless than ever about why things are happening. Hester's background is fascinating, and yet we see little of the time before Katherine. The house she lived in is gorgeous, and ideal for a film like this, but as soon as they can, the director and the screenwriter move us out into a smaller, less attractive cottage. Hester's father, played by Frank Wilson, looks to be a promising character, but he dies early on. My favourite character is Molly, the maid who is displaced by Katherine - but we only see her twice. All the interesting bits of detail are taken away from us too soon.

This would indicate that the director doesn't care so much about the characters or the story, and is going more for mood.. But we don't get mood - we get style. The cinematographer, Mandy Walker, has done some fine work. She shot Love Serenade, and for my money her pictures were the best thing in that film. She also shot the little-seen Life, which was a marvellously inventive film visually. Here, the filmmakers have gone for a special kind of film and film processing to achieve a unique look for the film. But basically, to the viewer, it means the whole film looks bluish. This works well for Miranda Otto, whose character is buring up with energy and vibrance, and can stand some toning down. But for Pamela Rabes' already-subdued character, it is nearly fatal. It seems to sap the performance of humanity, making her more of a ghost than she needs to be. The style has simply overshadowed the characters. Pamela Rabe just manages to overcome this handicap in the very last scene, and it is a great relief when she does.

Time and again, two talented actors struggle valiently against the difficulties this film presents them, but the obstacles are too great. One key scene illustrates how they fail, and the film fails them. Katherine and Hester watch Bonnie & Clyde on TV. Katherine imitates the actors and Hester tries to join in the fun. I found myself thinking "Gee Bonnie and Clyde was a good film, I wish I was watching that!" Plus my companion pointed out how brilliantly Arthur Penn introduced the two main characters in the first scene of Bonnie and Clyde. Yet there we were, half-way through The Well, and still not sure of the characters or their relationship. Who are these women? Why are they like they are? These questions, as far as I am concerned, are still open.

It seems to me that for this film to succeed, we either need more, or much less. We need more detail of character and motivation if the film is to succed as a good mystery tale. Or we need less story and more lyricism if the film is to succeed as visual poetry. As it is, we are stuck, confused, in the area between.