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aka - Peter Kenna's The Good Wife
Australia 1987
Directed by
Ken Cameron
95 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Umbrella Woman

Ken Cameron's film is an intriguing work that has the appearance of a classic 1970s rusticated Australiana period piece with pretty-as-picture country settings and fastidious 1930s décor and wardrobe but it is ultimately dressage for a melodramatically libidinal story worthy of Tennessee Williams and 1950s Hollywood. Writer Peter Kenna (the film’s full title is Peter Kenna’s The Umbrella Woman and it was released in the US as Peter Kenna’s The Good Wife) is however no Tennessee Williams and Ken Cameron’s depiction of the rural backwater in which the story takes place is a long way from the humid hotspots of the Deep South. Hence the seeming bizarreness of the narrative which sets flagrant sexual errancy amongst the laconic purlieus of a sleepy New South Wales town.

James Bartle’s camera beautifully captures the lyrical quality of the Australian countryside particularly in his recreation of the logging camp which is one of the film's main locations. Or at least it is in the first twenty minutes of the film during which Cameron sets up the main characters before introducing Sam Neill as a cocksure  pantsman who, before you can shout “Errol Flynn”, has seemingly bedded every woman in sight and driven the sweet heroine (Rachel Ward) mad with love for him. 

Ward is the rather unfortunately named Marge Hills who is married to logger Sonny (Bryan Brown). Sonny is a good husband but has absolutely no awareness of the childless Marge's sexual needs. When Sonny's younger brother, Sugar (Steven Vidler), comes to live with them she, with Sonny's consent, has sex with him but he is even less use in bed. Then barman Neville Gifford (Neill) arrives in town and Marge becomes obsessed with him.

Despite looking good on the surface beneath that there is much about the film which is ungainly. Marge and Sugar's rudimentary coupling has one scratching one's head then. within minutes of arriving in town Neville is groping Marge's thigh. Most grievously, however, there is really no development of Marge's sexual neurosis. Ms Ward’s ethereal presence (incongruously negated by calling her character Marge) is lovely but there is absolutely nothing about her performance which suggests Marge's disintegrating mental health. The character of Sugar too is unsatisfactory. Was he supposed to be simple-minded or were his interminable gaffes intended merely as an index of his callowness?  On the other hand Bryan Brown gives a typically strong performance as the paradigmatically Aussie husband, pragmatic to the end (in real life he and Ward were married, having met while filming the TV mini-series The Thorn Birds in 1983) and Sam Neill is is delicious as the low-rent Lothario. 

Although The Umbrella Woman arguably fails because of the ingrained mundane realist tendencies of Australian film, a legacy of its roots in the 1970s renaissance, which swamp its dramatic potential, it is one of the most interesting failures we have.

 

 

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