The way the Australian film industry is at the moment, it’s hardly surprising that there have been several filmmakers this year alone that are finding exceptional and even complex ways of telling minimal stories. One such film was Aaron Wilson’s Canopy, which had a brief Australian theatrical run earlier in the year and will receive the same in New York City at the end of August. Another title is Kasimir Burgess’ Fell, which receives a month-long release at ACMI starting this week through to September 27. While it’s not as strong as the aforementioned Canopy, nor Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook that were also released this year to box office grosses that did not reflect their superb qualities, Kasimir’s film is poignant and beautifully constructed film that once upon a time may have been seen as what was right with the local industry rather than a telltale sign of, supposedly, what’s wrong.
Fell isn’t exactly feel good, but it is certainly good, which is the most important thing of all. Kasimir and his screenwriter Natasha Pincus (both have music video experience, but you wouldn’t know it from the final product) explore grief, redemption, and forgiveness in the harsh Victorian hinterlands as two men, both mentally paralysed by a tormented soul attempt to forgive themselves and others following the death of a young girl. Thomas (Matt Nable), the girl’s father, retreats from society where his (ex?) wife appears briefly to lash out her grief onto him before a failed sexual encounter, eventually ending up working in the same logging district as the newly-released Luke (Daniel Henshall), who has done his time for the hit-and-run accident and now extols the almost born again virtues of being a father, having recently taken back care of his own five-year-old.
Thomas simmers, quietly observing Luke as he picks his daughter up from school and then later leaves her alone at night and visit the local pub and have sex on a car with a local woman. The two eventually find themselves working one-on-one with precarious ethics always in the forefront of Thomas’ mind. Does he have it in him to enact revenge?
Beautifully photographed by Marden Dean, he frequently lets the camera sit entirely still and allow nature to provide its own set of patterns and colours. Scenes of logging and the destruction of this very nature have a ghostly quality to them echoing the man-made turmoil at the centre of the film. Anybody and anything can be brought down in an instant; it’s a literal representation of the metaphor, but a poetic one and this connection with nature serves the drama well. There is very minimal traditional drama so to speak, with dialogue filling up the speakers less than the layered sounds of the wilderness as trees topple, machinery creaks, animals squeak and squawk, and silence cuts through like a knife. Much like Canopy in that sense, although not to quite the same degree, Fell takes the world around us to create a symphony of sorts far more intense and interesting to the ear than any traditional score could do.
Furthermore, Henshall’s performance is a remarkable, subtle piece of emotionally transfixing work. Far from what we saw in Snowtown, this working class character is a barely contained ball of grief as his mask of brute masculinity threatens to slip. Matt Nable is less successful as the grief-stricken father, but that is perhaps more likely to the withdrawn character he has been asked to play, given little chance to occupy more than a single register.
Kasimir Burgess is clearly a talented man, and like Aaron Wilson of Canopy, it will be interesting to see where he is able to go from here. This brand of micro Aussie features are hard to sustain a career out of, and several moments of somewhat heightened fantasy suggest with more money he may be able to do something even more significant. His strengths appear to lie in the way he allows characters to emerge with their relationship to the visuals. If it isn’t then Fell certainly gives it that allusion. This film is a hushed affair, but what it says with whispers is more than what other films can say with a yell.