Five years after the widely praised Lantana, Ray Lawrence returns with an adaptation of a short story by American writer Raymond Carver, ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – which Robert Altman had also adapted earlier in Short Cuts. Lawrence relocates the story to the outback of his native Australia, more precisely to Jindabyne, a small town in the mountainous wilderness of the southwest.
Jindabyne opens with the murder of a young Aboriginal woman before introducing the protagonists of the story, Irish mechanic Stuart, his pals Carl, Rocco and Billy, and his wife Claire. At the weekend the four men go on their long-awaited annual fishing trip in the mountains. But on the first day Stuart discovers the body of the murdered woman in the river. Without any deliberation, they simply tie the body to a tree so that it won’t drift away and carry on fishing. When they report the murder to the police on their return two days later, their actions are met with disgust in town and provoke anger in the Aboriginal community. Profoundly disturbed by her husband’s behaviour, Claire makes misguided attempts to reach out to the murdered woman’s family.
Jindabyne has been fairly well-received by festival audiences and critics and there is no denying that it is a well-crafted film, the intertwined themes of moral choice and family life being dealt with in a mature, sober way. The disintegration of Claire and Stuart’s marriage is well observed, the incident bringing back to the surface old resentments and repressed feelings from their past history. Claire’s uneasiness, caused partly by her suspicion that her husband harbours somewhat shameful feelings in relation to the dead girl, is convincingly drawn. The thriller part is well handled, the killer remaining mysterious and terribly familiar at the same time, with no easy resolution.
And yet some extremely misjudged decisions make Jindabyne a rather unpalatable experience. While there is a real effort to be true to Carver’s style and convey the characters’ emotions through acts and situations rather than through words, that effort is thoroughly ruined by the awful yodelling pseudo-spiritual singing on the soundtrack. Blasted in our ears while we are treated to images of spectacular scenery, it is obviously meant to let us know that at that point we should be feeling in awe of the stunning wilderness that unfolds before our eyes. The same strategy is repeated at the end, and the traditional Aboriginal ceremony is turned to mawkish caricature by the lengthy, over-emotional a cappella singing. This is a rather unsubtle, irksome and un-Carver-like way to try and tell the audience how they should feel.
And then there’s the race angle, which plays no part in the original story. Lawrence clearly tries to use the plot to say something about the treatment of Aboriginal people in his country. But Claire’s misplaced, drippy race guilt provides no insight into this theme, and does nothing but represent a self-obsessed white perspective. She goes to a private ceremony even though she is not wanted there in order to assuage her own bad conscience. And although what Stuart has done is irreparably insulting for the Aboriginal people, there is an intimation that some kind of reconciliation between Claire and her husband might be possible. In the middle of the Aboriginal ceremony, what interests the director most is not the Aboriginals’ sense of loss but what is going to happen to the white couple’s relationship.
This may be a well-meaning film but its po-faced worthiness, its lack of sophistication in its handling of the race issue and its incapacity to see beyond an all-white point of view make it an altogether unpleasant experience. Better to save your cash to go and see Ten Canoes next month, an Aboriginal folk tale starring only Aboriginal actors, which offers a much more complex – and humorous – take on the issue.