“A brave little film… Its rawness and honesty show a real freshness and spirit.”
Review (text version)
There’s a certain sub genre of film drama that sits somewhere between the conventional scripted narrative and documentary.
Where scenes play out in almost teal time and dialogue flows, stops, does a few twists and turns as it tends to in real conversations between people, not in the short hand of movie dialogue.
Here we have a young director, starring in his own film, experimenting with layers of realism, hand held cameras and a very loose approach to what feels like a lot of semi improvised dialogue.
The question inevitably, on everyone’s mind, “does it work or does it collapse under its own alternative cleverness?”
This is Three Blind Mice.
Matthew Newton, with a solid list of acting creds under one arm, and a script under the other, was clearly able to bring to this independently funded project a LOT of favours from a veritable “who’s who” cast of Aussie actors.
Scene after scene you’ll be saying to yourself, “Oh, look it’s that guy… and that one… and that guy! And the girl is the old fella’s other daughter, right?” Yeah right. Everyone is in it.
We meet three young seaman on the town for a spree without a single sighting of Gene Kelly – it’s the classic set up of one last night of innocence and shenanigans before being shipped off to a war zone in the cold light of day.
Newton himself plays high spirited and repeatedly reckless Harry; Toby Schmitz as the contemplative and responsible Dean; and Ewen Leslie as the somewhat lost lamb Sam.
In the confines of a rather bland hotel room, in semi whispers, Dean and Harry are treading on egg shells concerning something that has happened to Sam… and the teasing out of what it is and why it has happened is beautifully infused into the developing storyline.
No give aways, promise, but while the film is a character study first and foremost, the plot is there, gently bubbling away beneath the surface.
The three leads play with absolute conviction, Newton proves he’s not just a first rate actor, but as director he’s able to bring out the very best in those around him.
Stylistically, the whole experience feels very freeform – most of the time observational rather than staged. Some critics have drawn comparisons with the films of John Casavetes with the use of naturalistic, real time conversation and certainly this style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea… a five minute exchange between two characters takes five minutes to play out, and by TV soap opera standards, with their 90 second scenes this will feel as slow as molasses in January, but it has a function – the protracted time scale allows the actors to really inhabit their character and for us, as an audience, to absorb nuances that otherwise would slip by unnoticed when playing a scene in some contrived short hand.
In an interview, Newton mentioned the film was fundamentally scripted and only a few scenes were completely off the cuff, in particular where the leads interact with people passing by on the streets and if that is the case, then he has mastered the art of blurring the lines between improvisation and structured dialogue with noted brilliance. It felt to me like half the film was improvised and in those moments it really stood out as something fresh and different to the mainstream.
That said, there are some scenes that might have fared better with some heavy handed pruning at the film editing stage. In particular a card game featuring Newton, Schmitz, Alex Dimitrades, Marcus Graham and Clayton Watson.
While the actors I’m sure were having a wonderful time reaching to the very core of their “he man” bravado, it goes on so long, with such repetition of insults between those present that it starts to feel like an acting improvisation class rather than an integral part of the developing problems for our heroes. I’m not saying it has NO function, but in terms of screen time compared to the payload it delivers, it feels rather disproportionate.
The same can be said for the exchange on the roof top between Ewan Leslie and Gracie Otto. There’s a lot of, “that’s interesting to know about him or her”, but ultimately it’s information that neither serves plot nor the character’s ultimate journey, well, again, not in proportion to the screen time it’s given.
In another sequence, Barry Otto and Heather Mitchell as Dean’s prospective in-laws, play out a painful bickering, drunken aversion of all the reality about them — Again, fascinating character stuff but ultimately, like the card game, is it helping to drive the plot and impact our main characters?
So filming is over. It’s eight weeks later, here we are in the editing room and it’s time to look at what’s in front of us, objectively, and ask that very important question, repeatedly… “Would the audience miss that moment or that moment, if the scene was half the length? Would cutting it down that much actually make the intent of the scene more concentrated and effective in communicating it’s intention? More isn’t always more… discuss.
Ah, but it was also around this time of drunken Japanese dinner that something else clicked for me…. Newton is consciously NOT feeding us a conventionally structured and shaped film story. Instead he’s exhibiting a seemingly accidental menagerie of characters, some of them a bit freak show-ish, and we observe them as they glance off each other, in some cases totally collide, in other cases becoming distractions and hindrances to each other, and sometimes exhibiting no significant impact at all.
Once I accepted this, just allowing myself to absorb the chaos, the randomness, of the character interactions, the more I enjoyed the film.
While there are those somewhat bloated legato scenes, there are also tighter, leaner and more focussed moments that really demand our attention.
Sam’s visit to his Mother and Grandfather is a multi layered glimpse into not just Sam’s background but the expectations of Grandad – Bud Tingwell in his last film appearance – and Jacki Weaver in a fascinating and multidimensional characterisation.
Her conflicting disappointment, fear, criticism and love for her son are barely fleeting hints of a very rich and detailed back story… and Tina Bursill, just perfect, as a tired prostitute who, in just a few lines of dialogue, sums up an entire life.
In an Interview with Stuart O’Connor of The Guardian, Newton has said of the film,
“I guess I also wanted to show what young men should be doing with their evenings as opposed to going and getting killed or having to kill someone else – making mistakes, getting in trouble, meeting girls, playing cards, trying to figure out what it is to be a man.”
Newton really brings that home in a climactic scene between Harry and a character, talked about but unseen to this point – Glen Carter – played by Brendan Cowell.
It’s an uncomfortable and confronting showdown between the anti hero and the villain, and is brilliantly played by both. Simultaneously a dressing down for Harry and a recognition of his growth, his change and an acceptance of responsibility that to this point has eluded him.
The themes of loyalty, commitment, honesty and the abuse of power are all knocked squarely and firmly into their respective pockets… with a surprise twist in the final moments surrounding Sam and Harry’s personal decisions. This is no gimmicky twist – not at all – it that feels absolutely right given what they have been through over the course of the evening.
Commenting on the characters, Newton said, “I didn’t want to make a hero-driven film, I wanted to make it multi narrative in the sense that every character has their point of view and I wanted every character to treat the film like they were the lead. I really wanted everyone to bring their own opinion and personality.”
It’s good to hear that after several years of unfortunately very public exposure of personal troubles, Matthew Newton seems to be back in action with a new film he’s directed in the USA – From Nowhere – currently doing the festival circuits. Best of luck with it Matt!
Speaking of festival circuits, Three Blind Mice screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a dozen or so others around the globe, picked up a number of awards best screenplay and won the Critics Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics at the 2008 British Film Institute London Film Festival… great, and you’ve never heard of it, right? And you’ve never seen the DVD for sale, right? This copy (shows DVD box) I had to mail order second hand from the UK… How’s that for falling between the cracks?
Three Blind Mice deserved better. It’s a brave little film – its rawness and honesty show a real freshness and spirit – Newton and his cast, they really do deliver.
(review text Greg Punch, 2017)
Production company (review):
Producer / Writer / Editor (review):
Director / writer:
Matthew Newton, Ewen Leslie, Toby Schmitz, Gracie Otto, Jacki Weaver, Charles “Bud” Tingwell, Bob Franklin, Heather Mitchell, Barry Otto, Pia Miranda, Alex Dimitrades, Marcus Graham, Clayton Watson.
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Music (for the review):
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“George Street Shuffle”
“Danse Macabre – Big Hit 1”
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Internet Movie Database listing…
Article by Stuart O’Connor in The Guardian, 18 October 2008,
“I made a film I want people to argue about”
Interesting article about why Australian films fail to find audiences…
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