Asylum seeker's island hell

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South Solitary (M). Director: Shirley Barrett. Starring: Miranda Otto, Barry Otto, Rohan Nichol, Essie Davis, Marton Csokas, Annie Martin. 116 minutes 

South Solitary, Miranda Otto and Barry OttoSouth Solitary is billed as a romance, but its first half might sit comfortably in boxes labelled 'psychological thriller' or 'black comedy'. The title refers to a lighthouse island, a lonely, stony protuberance in the path of the Roaring Forties. Here, isolation and the wild landscape seem prone to agitate the wild aspects of human nature.

To this place comes 35-year-old Meredith (Miranda Otto) and her uncle Wadsworth (Miranda's real-life father, Barry), who is the new lighthouse keeper. Ominously, we learn that Wadsworth's predecessor committed suicide on the job.

Meredith is a woman-child, gentle but easily manipulated. She approaches the island wide-eyed, clutching a pet lamb and smiling in wonder at the sheer beauty of her new home. But before she reaches South Solitary she is put upon by unkind forces. Two boys appear on the cliff and call for the boat to turn around and go home.

If this is a heavy-handed allegory for the experience of asylum seekers, it is not entirely out of place. Meredith seeks asylum from secret, personal horrors that lie in her wake. A fresh start represents a chance at solace, although she continues to be oppressed by the perennial belittlement of her loveless uncle.

The curdled milk of human unkindness flows readily upon the island. Meredith's beloved lamb is immediately co-opted by Nettie (Martin), the young daughter of the assistant keeper, Harry (Nichol). This could be seen as a simple act of generosity to a child, but it also hints at Meredith's pliability, which becomes important as the film progresses.

Harry's family, it turns out, believed he was next in line to become head keeper. His wife Alma (Davis) therefore resents Wadsworth, and takes this out on Meredith with scathing passive aggression. Meredith seems constantly under threat: even Alma and Harry's children (including the boys from the cliff) flit about like bedraggled rejects from The Village of the Damned (and Nettie seems a likely contender to become a future serial killer).

One of the film's most memorable scenes sees Alma interrogate Meredith about deeply private details from her painful past. Alma sits in smug judgment, utterly compassionless, openly contemptuous. Meredith, lacking the self-esteem to reject this unjustified attack — it's none of Alma's damn business, after all — is humiliated.

In this scene writer-director Barrett demonstrates an ability to set dramatic tension squirming in the dark cracks of human awfulness. The same can be said for Meredith's encounters with the predatorily charming Harry, and his increasingly explicit advances. Barrett's film displays great insight into the darker nuances of human nature.

It's a shame that South Solitary falls down when, in its second half, it blows into more romantic waters.

A chain of events leaves Meredith alone on the island with the other assistant keeper, Jack (Csokas), an introspective loner haunted by memories of war. The remainder of the film deals with Jack and Meredith's gradual opening-up to each other. It is, frankly, dull, not helped by the entirely uninteresting Jack — if you want to see an example of 'overacted introversion', take a look at Csokas' melodramatic moping.

The lackluster second half does not diminish the harsh, memorable glare of the first, nor Miranda Otto's brilliant performance as Meredith. Although Meredith is a woman robbed of power, there are prickles in her personality that suggest a strength of character that may emerge, if she is permitted to grow up.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a regular contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: South Solitary, Shirley Barrett, Miranda Otto, Barry Otto, Marton Csokas, lighthouse, roaring forties


 

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Existing comments

Now that's what I wish I'd written. Bugger!
Annette Hill | 29 July 2010


While the moodiness of the film, revealed in the isolation of the terrain, might have been successfully portrayed for some people, it was not for me. I lived on the island for some months during the late 60s and it was obvious to me the film was not shot on location. The heat was missing, the bare hills, the rich sunsets and huge expanse of rising ocean - all missing. The portrayal of isolation missed the fear of being one with nature while being isolated from community.
Sandra Jobling | 30 June 2011


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