Christos Tsiolkas has in recent years become one of the most lauded ‘literary’ Australian authors. His novel The Slap published in 2008 was a runaway success and a book I studied at uni. Also a book I hated. But that is neither here nor there. This review is of Dead Europe (2012), an adaptation of an earlier Tsiolkas novel I have not read.
The film follows Isaac, a Greek-Australian, who returns to Greece to scatter his father’s ashes. This literal journey becomes a metaphorical one as Isaac finds out plenty of secrets about his family, most ones he would prefer not to have discovered. Isaac is also a photographer, and this is an interesting lens that the film is seen through. The incorporation of photography is one of the real strengths of the film as ideas of representation and presentation are explored and played with through this device. I think the film is strongest early on, when it chooses to deliver things relatively straight. The death of Isaac’s father and the resulting discussions concerning his burial and the familial squabbles that follow are the most effective parts of the film. When Isaac reaches Europe, there is no doubt that the intrigue picks up, but for me, it was not in an entirely successful manner. There are hints of ghost story, of road movie and a blurring of the lines between dream and reality. But ultimately there is a central journey that is far too oblique and distant from the audience. I think that when you take this approach, suggesting different genre and taking a really bold thematic approach, the film needs to be taut. However this film is just a bit too slipshod to make it work.
Dead Europe is a pretty unrelenting film. It has an intense start and does not really let up. Abuse, incest, sexuality, violence, paedophilia are all dealt with at one time or another. Narratively, this is definitely not a straight point A to point B excursion, rather revelling in etherealness. Unfortunately the script, which starts so strongly, really fades over the second half of the film. Alongside the extremely troubling issues listed above, the film also deals with faith, identity (both Australian & European), the notion of curses and legacy. And whilst this is all interesting enough, the film does not manage to draw them all together into an interesting or satisfying whole. The performances are excellent, in really quite challenging roles. As the protagonist Isaac, Ewen Leslie delivers, balancing a realistic performance with definite charisma. As his deplorable brother Nico, Martin Csokas delivers a troubling firecracker of a supporting turn which almost single-handedly makes the film worth checking out.
Overall, whilst the film has some intriguing ideas that are presented in some intriguing ways, it is an altogether too distant experience. Which is disappointing, because as a revealing of family secrets tale, this had a ton of potential.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
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