Film Review: The Eye of the Storm

Wry drama adapted from a the novel by Australia’s Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White showcases outstanding acting, good writing and an excellent score.

The main reason to see The Eye of the Storm, and the film has many to recommend it, is for the pleasure of watching three marvelous actors enjoy themselves in roles, as we say, written for them. Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis have given better performances in other films during their impressive careers, but here together, in Fred Schepisi’s literate adaptation of Patrick White’s renowned novel, they are splendid.

The time is the early 1970s, the place Centennial Park, a leafy suburb of Sydney, Australia. Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling), the 75-year-old doyenne of several estates left to her by her long-deceased husband, has summoned her well-grown children, Sir Basil (Rush) and Princess de Lascabanes (Davis), to her bedside. She has made up her mind to die, and she plans to torment her offspring before she goes.

Basil and Dorothy, as the princess is known to her intimates, come when summoned, knowing what awaits them, because their cruel but very rich mother is showing signs of dementia. They fear her increasingly erratic behavior will cost them their inheritance, never a sure thing in any case, but more than ever necessary. Basil, a celebrated London actor, has hit hard times on stage and off, and Dorothy, divorced from her French aristocrat, can’t afford to pay her own hotel bill or even maintain her wardrobe. But as Baz and Dot reacquaint themselves with Sydney society—boozy hangers-on, philandering politicians, resentful commoners—and reluctantly confront their painful childhood memories, Elizabeth initiates her own drama with herself, as always, starring as prima donna.

Rampling, ever attracted to difficult roles, brilliantly evokes the regal, spiteful, narcissistic Elizabeth, a woman at once irresistibly seductive and unconscionably selfish, and she does it bedridden and in wheelchairs. (She also appears as a decades-younger Elizabeth in flashbacks involving a heinous incident that forever scars Dorothy and gives the film its title.) Davis puts her singular ability to combine vulnerability and haughtiness to good use as Dorothy, and the happy coincidence that she and Rampling look like daughter and mother lends immediacy to both characters. Rush, needless to say, is perfectly cast as Basil, and he seems to enjoy every moment of his performance, at once foppish and charming, self-absorbed yet susceptible.

Still another story about a dysfunctional family—happy ones are all alike, Tolstoy declared 135 years ago, ending debate—The Eye of the Storm has more resonance than most such films, perhaps because the movie is content to present the vagaries of the human heart rather than struggle to explain them. Judy Morris, whose credits include Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, crafted an expedient screenplay from a complex novel (said to have secured the Nobel Prize for White), working in requisite exposition without slowing down (too much) the narrative. (More scriptwriters should sharpen their pens writing for children.) Certainly Morris can create wonderfully eccentric characters, notably Lotte (Helen Morris), Elizabeth’s housekeeper, a Holocaust survivor who entertains her employer in the evenings performing cabaret. Director Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders) had the good judgment to let his trusted production crew (cinematographer Ian Baker, editor Kate Williams, composer Paul Grabowsky) do their jobs: The film looks and sounds good (with Branford Marsalis on saxophone) without drawing attention to itself.

Movies more and more seem to be a young person’s game, demographics dictating cast and content, but producers are coming to understand that seniors are willing to turn out (discounts welcome) for comedies and dramas about people like themselves. The Eye of the Storm, a sophisticated entertainment aimed at adults who like smart, theatrical film, is an outstanding example of this growing trend.