Adapted from a 1973 novel by the Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm is a tale of disintegration. Of a family, of a culture, of an entire social and psychological way of life. An upper-class matriarch (Charlotte Rampling) lies dying in her palatial Sydney mansion. Her mendacious middle-aged offspring (Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) fly home from London and Paris to make sure of their inheritance. The traumatic meltdown that ensues is nothing new – just an awakening of betrayals and resentments that have lain dormant – in the name of gentility – for years, if not decades.
The director, Fred Schepisi, shows us the story in short glimpses. Brief, almost subliminal scenes, cut and shuffled like a deck of cards. Distancing us – in ways that don’t work for some viewers – from the overpowering claustrophobia of family life. So different, too, from the bejewelled density of White’s baroque prose. Joseph Losey (who planned a film of the 1957 novel Voss) might have plunged us more deeply into the twisted psychology of these people. But would he ever have found his way out? Schepisi’s achievement – a bolder one, perhaps – is to keep the trauma at a distance, and find in the story a parable of redemption and rebirth.
Towards the end of the film, the dying Elizabeth Hunter relives a flashback on a tropical island. The place where, years ago, she seduced her long-suffering daughter’s latest boyfriend – only to be left there on her own when, suddenly, the storm of the title hit. At this point, the storm has died down. Sunlight seeps through the hatch of the underground shelter, casting streaks of pale gold on Rampling’s exquisite but time-ravaged face. We watch, from above, as the hatch opens. Rampling emerges, radiant yet cruelly exposed, into a flood of white light. Precisely the sort that divas d’un certain âge try to avoid.
To the left of the SuperScope screen, a dead seagull dangles Dalí-like on the branch of a tree. The beach house looks like a badly built stage set, which has now collapsed. An upright piano rests, upside down, on the sand where the house once was. Leaving behind these last remnants of “civilisation” (the preceding 90 minutes have shown us what a joke that was), Rampling strides in long shot through a primeval forest, all deep shadows and green moss. She emerges – another unforgiving close-up in the harsh light – onto a virginal white sand beach.
Schepisi – unwilling to let us linger long on anything – cuts now to the bedroom where the older Rampling awaits her death. This room, in contrast to the beach, is an expensive but tasteless jumble of imported cultural bric-à-brac. Persian rugs and Chinese lacquer screens, faux Louis XIV chairs and gilded ormolu clocks. Emblems of a fake European culture to which Australians of a certain class were taught to aspire. Elizabeth has achieved it not only in the objects around her, but in her children too. Her son, Sir Basil Hunter, is an illustrious but second-rate Shakespearean actor. Her daughter, Princess Dorothy de Lascabannes, has married into French nobility. Yet she remains (unlike her mother) a dowdy and socially maladroit woman whose blue-blooded in-laws have nicknamed her Dos Rôti (“roast rump”).
While Sir Basil hides out at the family’s country estate, Dorothy returns at the last minute to her mother’s side. Mrs Hunter, proud to the last, pretends not to recognise her – yet a flicker of Rampling’s hypnotic eyes conveys this is not so. Knowing all too well who her daughter is, she tells her imperiously that she needs to use “the commode”. Death may have a certain cultural cachet; bodily functions do not. Is her daughter equal to the challenge? Dorothy half-leads, half-carries her behind the Oriental screen and seats her sedately on the loo.
The cuts flow quickly, back and forth, between a frail and elderly Rampling on the commode and her younger self, who explores the beach and strides Venus-like amid the surf. Catching her own image, reflected exquisitely, in a cracked gilt mirror half-buried in the sand. The beach – where the younger Rampling wanders – is a chaos of driftwood and palm fronds and whirling gulls. The screen – which shields the older Rampling, as she relieves herself – is of polished black lacquer, with white irises and sedately posed herons picked out in mother-of-pearl. Raw nature, vying with outmoded notions of culture and art, asserts itself as the old woman dies.
It is not just a character who dies here. It is a whole culture from which Australia (like any post-colonial society) has struggled to set itself free. White, more than any other writer in English, gave voice to that struggle. The Eye of the Storm, ironically, is an old-fashioned art film on a European model, with a star most famous for Il portiere di note (The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani, 1974) and Sous le sable (Under the Sand, François Ozon, 2000). Opening and closing his film with that tableau of Rampling on the beach, is Schepisi perhaps telling us that – whatever we may have been watching – The Eye of the Storm is a film you just can’t make any more?