Perfect Strangers

October 1st, 2003 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Gaylene Preston

Starring: Rachel Blake, Sam Neill

There are some screen performers who’ve gone a long way riding the crest of the current wave of Australian cinematic success — some all the way to Hollywood.

Names like Joel Edgerton, Eric Bana, Heath Ledger and Sam Worthington are instantly recognisable everywhere from Sydney to Los Angeles, but if it wasn’t for the post Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla boom the Australian film industry is still trying to keep alive, they’d still be unknown Perth schoolboys and variety show comics.

But that other Australian film industry — the small, quiet, ultra low budget one that’s been around since the days of Wake in Fright — has provided staple work for a small crop of actors who might not have stars on Rodeo Drive, but who never fail to give us something new.

One of them is Rachel Blake. After a signature role in Lantana that came the closest ever to a star turn for her, Blake’s been on the quiet side lately. But she’s due to show up again in kiwi director Gaylene Preston’s twisted fairy tale Perfect Strangers.

Sounding nothing like the archetypal starlet gushing about how important the character is in a by-numbers Hollywood flick, acting seems the furthest thing from her mind at times — even on the verge of the film’s release.

Asked about her status as one of Australia’s least prolific actresses despite consistent critical praise, she thinks the reason is as much life off the screen as the lack of interesting characters to adopt on it.

‘It’s taken me this long to reach the age where I have a life outside acting,’ she says. ‘I used to give everything over to acting, but now I’ve discovered I love gardening. I love sewing and embroidering. I spend time with my partner Tony, we go up to the bush and hide away.

‘My work used to be all my self expression, but now I have a lot of avenues to find happiness and joy so I suppose the need for me to work has dropped away a bit.’

Of course, the other reason is because the sort of roles Rachel Blake would fill don’t come up too often. You can imagine her cringing with horror at being offered Jennifer Connelly’s part in The Hulk or one of Natalie Portman’s handmaidens in a Star Wars movie (the Hollywood stepping stone of more than one Aussie actress). Is she avoiding mainstream cinema like the plague?

‘Not necessarily, I just find so many of [those stories] disappointing,’ she says. ‘If I could find a really good formulaic story I’d probably do it, although I think the idea of a good formulaic story is a bit of any oxymoron.’

And Perfect Strangers is anything but formulaic. More than once during the film of the film, you find your way of looking at the story changing — whether you like it or not. Was that what Blake liked about it?

‘Yes, the fact that there were so many things to explore in it,’ she says. ‘I went and met Gaylene and just loved the way she thought and the way she pushes boundaries. I admire that in our art, because what’s the flipside? Safety — you end up with your next Hollywood blockbuster. For me, entertainment is about ideas and pushing boundaries and being outside of this square we’ve invented.’

‘It’s interesting because there are so many ways you can be entertained now — you can have a DVD, you can watch videos, you can go to the cinema, you can watch it in 3D surround sound, and yet while the ways we can be entertained are increasing, the stories we’re telling are getting narrower and narrower. As an actor who gets bored incredibly easily, finding something out of that square is difficult, but it’s also very rewarding when you do.’

And in a further twist in the Rachel Blake tale, she isn’t even one of those indie darlings desperate for street cred by appearing in every piece of existential navel-gazing that comes along. You get the feeling every role she chooses is for her own sake and the critics (and audience) can like it or lump it.

‘It wasn’t just the story that had me say ‘I’m interested in that’,’ she reckons. ‘There was a myriad of reasons. After Lantana there were a lot of formula stories and this wasn’t, so that was interesting. I could also be out of Australia and get to work with different people, which was really good.’

Whether or not the critics and the audience like it will be the epitome of diverse opinion. Whereas your average American movie polarises audiences into either loving or hating it, there’ll be as many distinct views of Perfect Strangers as there’ll be people who see it.

It starts innocuously enough — even looking like a garden variety Hollywood psycho thriller. In a small NZ town, Melanie (Blake) leads an existence of quiet struggle and drudgery like most of us do, working in a fish and chip shop and trawling the pub nightly with her mates for an interesting man.

One night a handsome stranger (Neill) sweeps her off her metaphorical feet, taking her to an island where he lives in a cabin high up the lush, stormy coast.

In every woman’s nightmare, he quickly comes unhinged, insisting he loves her and snapping when she considers it a romantic one night stand. After things get rough, Melanie wakes up miles from anywhere, trapped and alone on a rainswept island with a psycho.

The movie turns strange from then on, and you’ll realise that if you thought you were watching a vanilla-flavoured thriller, you’ll have to undergo a huge change of attitude. Taken literally, Perfect Strangers is quite frankly ridiculous, but that’s not supposed to be the point — in the director’s own words, it’s a twisted fairy tale.

We watch things get increasingly bizarre (for us rather than Melanie, who descends into her own illusionary world of perfect happiness), and whatever point the film is making (and there might be far more than one) isn’t apparent by the time the credits roll.

For that reason, it’s hard to say if it was a good or a bad film — it comes down entirely to whether that sort of thing is your cup of tea.

After seeing Melanie crawl into bed with her mystery man to say she’s lonely and wants someone to talk to — the bruise on her head and stab wound in his stomach still fresh — some people will dismiss Perfect Strangers out of hand as being ludicrous.

But if your idea of a great movie is something you’ve never seen before where you have to do some of the work yourself by looking below the surface, Perfect Strangers will give you food for thought long after it’s over.

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