Bringing “The Eye of the Storm” to the screen involved the reunion of a filmmaking “family,” a brilliant bevy of old Oz hands from that heady era of filmmaking hailed as the Australian New Wave. Cast as the lead, legendary Charlotte Rampling is neck-deep in Australian acting royalty: Judy Davis (from “My Brilliant Career,” 1979, to Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love,” 2012); Geoffrey Rush (from “Children of the Revolution,” 1996, with Davis, to “The King’s Speech,” 2010); as well as lesser lights such as Helen Morse (“Picnic at Hanging Rock,” 1975), honorary Aussie Colin Friels, Billie Brown, Dustin Clare (Gannicus in TV’s “Spartacus”), et al.
In 1978, Fred Schepisi’s “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” launched his successful directorial career abroad; “Storm” is the first film he’s shot on home ground since the uncompromising “A Cry in the Dark” (1988). Nobel-winner Patrick White’s hefty novel was adapted for the screen by Judy Morris, so striking as the star of Peter Weir’s “The Plumber” (1979), and subsequently scripter of hits like “Happy Feet” and “Babe: Pig in the City.”
Morris’ two-hour adaptation has at its center — or eye — the long dying of wealthy matriarch Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling). A formidable personality, the old woman makes her bedroom a kind of theater, which estranged son Basil (Rush) and daughter Dorothy (Judy Davis) must attend, in hopes of cashing in on a much-needed inheritance. This trio of greater and lesser monsters —emasculating mother, narcissistic son, daughter bereft of joie de vivre — have at each other unlovingly, though it’s clear the aging kids desire nothing so much as the queen’s unqualified admiration. Well, except for her money.
Other players in Elizabeth’s chamber drama are nurses Flora (Schepisi’s radiant daughter Alexandra) and Mary (Mary Theodorakis); Lotte (Morse), the traumatized Jewish cook who entertains her boss by singing and hoofing ‘Weimar cabaret numbers; and the faithful lawyer (John Gaden), once Elizabeth’s lover, who handles family affairs, most notably recasting her will at the end.
Don’t go into this family history expecting a downer. A peculiar strain of acid wit infects almost every scene and conversation. Along with the frequent glimpses of decay, worms eating away at the apple and such, the film builds a mood of carpe diem: life plays out full of sturm und drang if you’ve got the taste for it, but ultimately every damned thing is swept away. It’s knowledge that Rampling’s Elizabeth has in her beautiful bones. Wearing aging makeup — she’s only five years older than Rush, nine years older than Davis — Rampling projects more wattage than many an ingénue. Like Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in “Jules and Jim,” she “teaches us Shakespeare.”
Elizabeth’s memories of a devastating tropical storm and its exhilarating aftermath bracket the film; it’s clear that Rampling’s character has devoured whatever life brought her, sinning voraciously as her emotionally hamstrung children cannot. Room for only one monstrous appetite in the family, so Basil’s impotent and insecure, despite his English knighthood; and Dorothy, a princess by unhappy marriage, is such a prune she looks as though she might swallow herself. Rush and especially Davis nail these roles. He manifests just the right quotient of vanity and softness, something short of virility, while Davis gnaws at herself self-punishingly, edging away from every pleasure.
The poignant scene in which Rush and Davis huddle under bed covers like abandoned children cuts to the heart of humankind’s universal orphaning and the concomitant need for creature comfort. Disinherited by holocaust, Lotte frantically cooks food for those who have long since starved in Nazi camps and dances to keep from dying herself.
Schepisi takes time to skewer Australian stereotypes, from cosmopolitan politicians masquerading as populists, to upper-middle-class poseurs, to Crocodile Dundee he-men. But what makes “The Eye of the Storm” so pleasurable are the rich rhythms of history — familial, historical, cinematic — that move the film. In memory, Elizabeth plays wanton odalisque on a divan, inviting love in the sun, while Dorothy, locked in the now, shrinks and withers. Basil will carry the burden of his mommy-diva to the stage, creating autobiographical theater where he can shine. Death comes to Queen Elizabeth while seated on a throne — a final wink and nod to the down and dirty rhythms that rule the proud flesh.
(Three showings: 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 25, Everett Performing Arts Center; 4 p.m. Saturday, May 26, Egyptian Theatre; 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 27, Egyptian)[[In-content Ad]]