Critical Round-up: Like Minds

English actor Eddie Redmayne’s recent leading role in the gently delightful My Week With Marilyn reminded me of the mostly forgotten, rather mixed-up Australia-UK co-production in which he made his feature film debut, Like Minds (2006). Watching the film a couple of years back, I was struck by just how much it muddled its Australian and British provenance, and it seems I wasn’t alone. The following is a critical round-up previously published on my Screen Addict blog:

Like Minds [aka Murderous Intent]
d.  Gregory J. Read / 2006 / Australia-UK / 110 mins

Still from Like Minds

Having directed a string of acclaimed documentaries in the 1990s, Australian filmmaker Gregory J. Read cut his fiction teeth with producer credits on a handful of Australian features, including Jon Hewitt’s gritty, underrated Redball (1999). Modest in its means – and similar in scale to Hewitt’s police procedural – Read’s feature debut, Like Minds, is a capable but flawed thriller which reportedly started life as a documentary on the private lives of psychopaths.

Indebted to a particular strain of collegiate secret society films (Dead Poet’s Society, The Skulls, et. al.), Like Minds follows Alex (Eddie Redmayne), a clever student at a prestigious Yorkshire boarding school who is heavily implicated in a web of murder and deceit. Sally (Toni Collette) is a forensic psychologist tasked with determining whether Alex should face trial for murder, but as Alex’s story unfolds, so do details of the Knights Templar and a string of grisly secrets.

Although largely filmed in South Australia, Like Minds was the first Australian/United Kingdom co-production to be set in Britain for over a decade and understandably benefits from its position in a culture steeped in historical intrigue. But aside from the involvement of key cast and crew, there is little here to suggest the films worth as an example of specifically Australian cinema. (Which is not to suggest, of course, that Australian filmmakers should confine themselves to ‘typically’ Australian narratives or only tell ‘truly’ Australian stories, merely that such a film – set in England and presented essentially as a genre piece – will have little hope of appealing directly to Australian sensibilities as anything other than a minor British genre film.)

And somewhat understandably, Australian critical reaction hinted at the inherent difficulty of selling an Australian film set in England, and suggested that a confused provenance might have contributed directly to a drop in overall quality.

In a largely negative review for the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Byrnes had reservations about some of the central performances, and admitted difficulty in adjusting to the setting:

There’s no reason Australian actors can’t play English characters in an English story. It worked in an American setting with L.A. Confidential, after all, but it’s jarring here. I thought the film was set in Australia for most of the first reel, which was odd, because we don’t have many places as cold, old and damp as the school these boys attend. I kept thinking it must be one of those old colleges in Adelaide or Hobart, during a particularly nasty winter.

Driving his point home, Byrnes concludes the review with an astute observation of the industrial conditions which no doubt bore influence upon the production:

Many of the film’s decisions appear to have been driven by external pressures to do with funding and selling. Every film has to balance those pressures, but Like Minds succumbs to them. It’s a bit of an Austro-British pudding, in fact, possibly due to the need to fit the requirements of funding bodies on different sides of the world. The script wasn’t ready, in any case.

In The Age, with an info-box that designates the film as British, Jim Schembri’s slightly more optimistic three-star review leaves discussion of provenance to the final paragraph, with a further implication that the choice of setting was largely a matter of industrial necessity.

Although Like Minds is set in England it is essentially an Australian film. Read is a Melbourne-born Sydneysider who had to shoot half the film in England to secure financing. It’s one of the realities of filmmaking, though one wonders how much more effective the movie’s sense of foreboding would have been had it been set in the sunny climes of Oz rather than in the cliched gloom of Britain.

Reviewing the film for ABC-TV’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz was similarly perplexed by what she deemed an unnecessary choice of setting:

It’s a little puzzling that this majority Australian co-production isn’t set in one of Australia’s schools, where it would have worked just as well, but in England; but that’s not the only puzzle the film offers.

Opinions such as this seemed unlikely to change once the film was released in the UK, with some British critics finding the peculiar mix of Australian talent and English subject matter equally confounding. In his brief two-star review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described Like Minds as an

Australian psycho-thriller set in a British public school for boys, or conceivably in one of Australia’s poshified, pommified versions of the same thing.

Meanwhile, in The Observer, Philip French commenced his review by implicating that the confused national identity of the film was linked inextricably to its quality:

This Anglo-Australian thriller, set entirely in England but partly filmed Down Under, is convoluted, addled and unconvincing.

It is undoubtedly easy, of course, for critics to pick holes in films which they believe to be inferior, and it’s no surprise that the more negative the review, the more pointed the criticism of Like Minds‘ complex industrial identity. Co-production agreements are put in place in order to drive collaboration between film industries, and to allow countries to share knowledge, skills, expertise and, crucially, stories. When official co-productions really succeed – and lets face it, that is a rare occurrence – they have the ability to lay bare the common humanity that draws us all together, and the cultural schisms that ensure the world remains a place of endless discovery. When they fail, however, they do so with a distinct lack of passion and a complete ignobility of purpose.

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