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Australia 2011
Directed by
Jonathan Teplitzsky
109 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Burning Man

Synopsis: Tom (Matthew Goode) is an English chef at an upmarket Bondi restaurant. He has a small son, Oscar (Jack Heanly), and a much-loved wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) who is stricken by serious illness. Tom tries to make sense of tragedy by drowning himself in work, grief, anger and sex.

The challenge of reviewing a film of this nature is not to reveal too much, but also to try to make sense of what will be for some viewers a frustrating experience, whilst for others (like me) an emotionally powerful and impressive exploration of some of the most important aspects of life.

Frustration may stem from the film’s structure. Like the concurrently screening We Need To Talk About Kevin, Jonathan Teplitzsky’s film uses the jigsaw puzzle technique to show fragments of a life – past and present, by the end the pieces falling into place and the viewer getting the complete picture.

The confronting opening scene makes one question what sort of film we are about to see. With early shots involving a dramatic car crash, masturbation, sobbing, things on fire, and culinary abuse of a duck carcass I was almost at a loss. We soon learn that grief is fuelling a lot of the dysfunctionality, and gradually our initial abhorrence of Tom’s behaviour turns to empathy. Gradually, too, we discover just how the characters are interrelated, and the seemingly erratic structure becomes more a reflection of Tom’s inner turmoil – memories of the past, and coping strategies for the present. For Tom, who is burning up inside, the whole world seems to be going up in flames, but except for the flaming frying pans, it’s mostly in his head.

The film looks fabulous. Cameraman Gary Phillips (who shot Teplitzky’s previous two films Gettin’ Square, 2003, and Better Than Sex, 2000 does a tour-de-force job with the greatly varied scenes whilst the score by Lisa Gerrard seriously impressed me – broody, beautiful and melancholy in the vein of Arvo Pärt.

Goode, who was so sensitive opposite Colin Firth in A Single Man, 2009, is magnificent as Tom. Equally fine is Novakovic, who is vulnerable, sexy, cheeky and adorable as Sarah. The relationship between husband and wife is utterly believable. In small but finely judged roles are Essie Davis as Karen, Sarah’s sister, along with Gia Carides, Kate Beahan, (luscious as prostitute Lesley), Marta Dusseldorp, Kerry Fox and the too-seldom seen Rachel Griffiths as the various women trying to prop up Tom’s life. Young Heanly as son Oscar is a real heartbreaker. The delicate rapport between father and son will have you in tears.

Teplitzky has already won this year’s Australian Writers' Guild award for an original screenplay. It is remarkable that he manages to insert touches of humour among all the angst, and yet this is often the truth of life. Look out also for the imaginative use of a lobster as a sort of leitmotif that links several of the thematic elements of the film. I loved this story – the first film in ages that has simultaneously embraced the complexity of life and touched me on a deeper emotional level.




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