Wandering back into The Eye of the Storm

Having made its UK premiere at FilmFest Australia last year, veteran Australian director Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of Patrick White’s much-loved novel, The Eye of the Storm, plays in cinemas across Britain and Ireland throughout May, June and July. To celebrate the release, The Far Paradise takes a look at a novel, and a film filled with homecomings, both on the page and off the screen…

Production still for THE EYE OF THE STORM

A knight and a princess, returning to the foreign shores of their homeland. How could they not disappoint?’

In 1973, Australian novelist Patrick White reached the zenith of his career when he was bestowed with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Earlier that year, he had published perhaps his finest work, a book which had confirmed his status in the eyes of the Swedish Academy, The Eye of the Storm. The story of two siblings who return from abroad to their dying mother’s side – partly out of familial responsibility, but largely in an effort to ensure their vast inheritance – The Eye of the Storm was an excoriating character study of a trio of self-important, selfish and inherently fallible misanthropes going through the motions of upper-class disfunction.

Original cover for Patrick White's The Eye of the StormBut The Eye of the Storm was also about homecomings; a difficult restitution to the family fold, a pair of expatriate offspring returning to the nest they had long-ago spurned. And White himself was no stranger to such matters, nor to the itinerant, expatriate life. Born in London in 1912, his own family unit – English mother and English-Australian father – relocated to Sydney just six months later. After a spell at boarding school in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, he was sent back to England to study at the Cheltenham School in Gloucestershire, experiences which no doubt fostered a distant relationship with his parents, a relationship reflected in the central dynamics of The Eye of the Storm.

An intention to finish school early and become an actor was met with parental approval, so long as he returned home first, not – as one might expect – to spend time with erstwhile parents, but for a spell working, supposedly at their behest, as a Jackaroo in the Snowy Mountains. White spent his twenties living first in Britain, and then the United States, where the outbreak of a second calamitous war lead him back to London and the Royal Air Force, with whom he served as an intelligence officer on all three sides of the Mediterranean. Trading the viccissitudes of post-war European life for the relative sanctuary of Australia, White returned ‘home’ after the war with his Greek partner Manoly Lascaris, continued to write, and quietly set about crafting a career as one of the most important English-language novelists of the twentieth century.

In her later years, White’s mother moved back to London, where she reigned over an apartment filled with eccentric servants in the fashionable district of Knightsbridge, eventually serving as inspiration for the manipulative Elizabeth Hunter, the unloving matriarch of The Eye of the Storm. As well as reflecting his own life, however, the strained relationship with ‘home’ that permeates White’s novel is also undeniably analogous to Australia’s contemporaneous (and continuous) struggle to find a post-European identity in the shadow of seemingly irrevocable ties to a fading mother England.

From page to screen

Produced in 2011 and soon to be released in British and Irish cinemas, Fred Schepisi’s delightfully dark and irrepressibly stylish adaptation of White’s novel is also riven with homecomings and strained domesticities. Charlotte Rampling plays Elizabeth Hunter, the domineering matriarch to the pair of cruel, detached (but nevertheless returning) siblings – Geoffrey Rush’s actorly Sir Basil and Judy Davis’ ex-princess, Dorothy. Neither Schepisi, nor his trio of stars, are unfamiliar with notion of itinerant careers in a global industry, with Schepisi, Rush and Davis all returning to their native Australia to make The Eye of the Storm.

Production still from THE EYE OF THE STORMAn itinerant journeywoman of pan-European cinema, Rampling is no Aussie, of course, but nor is she a total stranger to Australian cinema, having previously starred opposite a young Russell Crowe in a screen adaptation of Alan Marshall’s Hammers Over the Anvil (1992). And despite working predominantly in continental Europe (most often in France) nor is Rampling immune to questions of identity. When probed, she still considers herself British, telling Peter Craven, in a recent profile for The Australian newspaper, that ‘you only think of yourself as who you’re born to be, really. You can’t change that.’ Speaking elsewhere about her experience on The Eye of the Storm, Rampling has also suggested that her ability to work within different national contexts is partly down to the similarity of filming processes around the world. For Rampling, film crews are ‘all different versions of the same people, in a global sense’.

Having emerged as one of the most talented figures of the 1970s Australian film renaissance with The Devil’s Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), Fred Schepisi has also spent much of his career away from his nominal ‘home’. He lived out the 1980s in Hollywood, directing a string of features in a range of genres, before returning to Australia in 1988 to direct a US-backed portrayal of the Lindy Chamberlain affair, A Cry in the Dark [Australian title: Evil Angels]. From there, Schepisi resumed the itinerant life of a journeyman director, criss-crossing the Atlantic for a whole raft of projects.

After so long spent working overseas, it was Schepisi’s desire to direct an adaptation of The Eye of the Storm that brought him home. And yet he has likened his own homecoming, at least in a professional sense, as like returning to a completely different country in which he was required to ‘re-learn’ the local system. In that sense, he is not unlike Basil and Dorothy, returning home to the same unloving mother, but forced to re-align themselves with her odd household filled with cooks, nurses and solicitors.

Most notable, perhaps, for those with an interest in Australian cinema, is the fact that The Eye of the Storm is not populated by your ‘typical’ Australian characters. Elizabeth, Basil and Dorothy inhabit an urban milieu far removed from most cinematic renderings of Australian society. The portrayal of these characters is made even more remarkable, perhaps, by the films elevation well above the rote status of society melodrama. Schepisi and screenwriter Judy Morris have successfully incorporated much of the subtext, idiosyncracy and internalised foibles with which White had imbued his characters on the page. On screen and off, The Eye of the Storm may well be a homecoming coloured by a life of absence, adorned with stylish cultural accoutrements, but it is a homecoming nonetheless.

The Eye of the Storm arrives in cinemas on May 3rd and plays in cities across the UK and Ireland throughout May, June and July. Visit the website of UK distributor Munro Film Services for a full list of participating cinemas.

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