A seamy side to Sydney

Cate Blanchett’s deluxe, blue-ribbon aura sits uneasily in gritty Aussie drama Little Fish, but the film’s still worth seeing.

Mark Adnum

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Little Fish, directed by Rowan Woods, released in British cinemas on 21 July 2006.

Cate Blanchett is a conspicuously talented actress whose eclectic performances have made her an Oscar-winning movie star. The Australian was perfectly convincing as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth, the role that made her famous, and will probably be so again in the sequel due next year. In 2004, the year before she won an Oscar for capturing the magnificence of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, she made a triumphant return to the Sydney theatre scene as the imperious Hedda Gabler. Blanchett’s star-text is similar to that of the young Meryl Streep’s: the passionately intelligent actor’s-actor whose glacial facial features and regal presence makes mockeries out of the limited range of their more traditionally glamorous peers (cf: Nicole Kidman).

So Blanchett is miscast in the otherwise excellent Little Fish where she plays Tracy Heart, a plain-Jane 32-year-old ex-junkie eking out an existence working in a video store in the outer suburbs of Sydney. Though her performance is faultless, Blanchett’s deluxe, blue-ribbon aura is too at odds with the role. She works hard and well, but the role has been miscast. Where was Toni Collette?

Little Fish continues the fine tradition of gritty Australian films that detail the tension and violence that brews amid the mundanity of the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. This is no surprise considering it’s directed by Rowan Woods, who helmed 1998’s The Boys, a chilling film about the murderers of Anita Cobby, a nurse and former winner of Sydney’s ‘Miss Western Suburbs’ beauty pageant. In Little Fish, Tracy (Blanchett) has cleaned up her act and is trying to secure a bank loan to open up an internet and gaming café, a venture she dreams will liberate her from the dreariness of earning a menial living. But her past won’t quit, in more ways than one. While her low income and bad credit history stand in the way financially, her ex-boyfriend – a drug dealer – has returned from years abroad and seems to be back at his old profession. Her best friend Lionel (Hugo Weaving), who introduced her to heroin, is still an avid junkie and though resolutely sober, Tracy remains in his orbit, a dangerous place where serpentine criminal kingpin Brad ‘The Jockey’ Thomson (Sam Neill), Lionel’s secret ex-lover, lurks.

This is a less horrific and suspenseful film than The Boys, as there is nothing here to match the weight of that film’s grisly factual background. But though the story and screenplay don’t really take us anywhere unexpected, Woods’ knack for evoking an authentic ‘Westie’ (pejorative Sydney slang for those who live in the outer-western suburbs) mis-en-scene is spot-on. No drag queens on buses here, or breathtaking Opera House vistas. Cramped bedsits, wine boxes and never-emptied ashtrays dot the set decorations and Tracy’s life takes place amid a resonantly depressing world where strangers hustle and bustle in claustrophobic proximity – everyone seems to live there only because they can’t afford to move into a nicer area, and there is little tangible sense of community or familiarity.

Under Blanchett is a who’s-who of Australian thesps, with Hugo Weaving (The Lord of The Rings, The Matrix) outstanding as a rotting, fiftysomething gay junkie who’s never moved on from a crush in his early thirties on a disinterested man. That man, Neill (Jurassic Park), is fabulously evil, but the real highlight of the film is Noni Hazlehurst, a true-blue Aussie favourite and host of pre-school children’s television shows like Play School and prime-time’s Better Homes and Gardens, who plays Tracy’s battle-scarred mother with a heartbreaking tenacity that would do Brenda Blethyn proud. Australian audiences used to seeing Hazlehurst popping up cheerily advising them on what type of plastic sheet to line their backyard water feature with, or guiding their kids through the fine art of finger painting, were taken aback by seeing her angrily butt her nine-hundreth cigarette for the day, broken-hearted eyes permanently rimmed with held-back tears. She was duly rewarded with a Supporting Actress award at last year’s Australian Film Institute Awards (Blanchett and Weaving won both leading role categories).

An antipodean Morvern Callar, Little Fish is dotted with celestial moments of real beauty and during these times Blanchett’s contextual handicap falls away and a little of her Queen-of-the-Elves mystique works perfectly. Non-Australian audiences may miss the beauty of Blanchett’s Tracy, looking for a public toilet and accidentally wandering into a children’s choir performing a chorale cover version of Flame Trees, a hard-rock working-class anthem by now-defunct but legendary Aussie band Cold Chisel. But they should relate easily to the plight of the film’s ever-struggling band of little fish, and be at least interested in the luminous Blanchett’s approach to drab.

Mark Adnum is editor of Outrate, the Australia-based film reviews website.

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