Meredith (Miranda Otto) and her officious, proper and demanding uncle (Barry Otto) are sent to the isolated lighthouse on remote and rugged South Solitary island shortly after World War I, to take over after the death of the head light keeper. The small supporting family living there, Harry (Rohan Nichol) and his steely wife (Essie Davis) with their three young children, provide little comfort, and the sullen, introverted junior keeper, Fleet (Marton Csokas), is the only other inhabitant. After a series of mishaps, Meredith is left alone with Fleet, a horse and Lucille the lamb ... and her demons. These two damaged people have to make an accommodation with the wild weather and themselves to try and survive.
Review by Louise Keller:
Shirley Barrett's quirky trademark characterisations in her films Walk the Talk (2000) and the wonderful Love Serenade (1996) which won the Camera D'Or at Cannes, appeal to me enormously. And while her new film South Solitary echoes Barrett's unique twist on life, overall, the film disappoints. The isolated, rugged island setting, the characters and their juxtapositions create an interesting landscape, yet the storyline does not seem to have enough ballast to hook us emotionally, as a fish would be drawn to irresistible bait. The offbeat humour hits its mark although it often feels forced. The film does have its charms however, and there's a delicious incongruity that exists between Miranda Otto's persistently cheerful protagonist and Martin Csokas' anti-social assistant lightkeeper.
I must try to remain cheerful, Miranda Otto's Meredith Appleton mutters, while her seasick uncle (Barry Otto) lets known his discomfort of the lurching seas, as the small boat nears the remote, windy island. The nonplussed lamb she clutches under her arm starts to bleat as the long, steep climb to the sleeping quarters and lighthouse begins. The lamb (called Lucille) subsequently steals a few scenes, dressed in cardigans and a preposterous pink hat as it becomes the plaything for local child (Annie Martin), who collects scabs ('Every scab tells a story').
The story takes a while to get going as Meredith's patronising, stickler for detail uncle (Barry Otto, mannered) lets his disapproval be felt (of Meredith, the residents and the lackadaisical inefficiencies). Meanwhile we are given picture postcard shots of the island's raw beauty and striking sunsets, the stark white crashing of the waves on the deadly rocks. There's a photogenic horse too that is carefully positioned in various shots (the cinematography is lovely). Things start to warm up as Meredith, glowing from her bath and wearing a seductive, peach satiny dressing gown, makes a nightcap for the obviously lustful (and married) Stanley (Rohan Nichol, impressive) who calls her Mopsy. Essie Davis has great presence (and not enough screen time) as Stanley's bluntly spoken wife who has seen it all before.
The best scenes are those between Miranda Otto and Csokas (with a curious Welsh accent), shot in the claustrophobic lighthouse. They are both excellent as they portray their flawed and emotionally damaged characters. They're a curious couple. He dislikes company; she yearns for affection. I shivered when the gale forced winds hit the tiny island and the tension starts to builds. Not even the homing pigeons are willing to send the alert; they simply fly in a circle. The film's circular structure works well, although the film at 2 hours is too long and would greatly benefit from a nip and a tuck.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Shirley Barrett has only made two previous features and I really like them both: Love Serenade (1996) and Walk the Talk (2000). She has an acute view of life, is strongly observant and directs actors with sensitivity. South Solitary is her first stumble; but it's got good things, too, like a well maintained mood plus some fine performances in beautifully crafted and interesting characterisations.
I especially like Rohan Nichol's Harry, a perfectly captured character whose flaws are only too familiar; the ever ready power of Essie Davis also impresses, and Marton Csokas, complete with a strange, Welsh-inspired accent, is a memorable figure as Fleet. Leading lady Miranda Otto has a terrific presence and is highly effective as Meredith, vulnerable but not a door mat, strong but not too assertive - and refusing to let her past make her a victim, but scarred by it.
While the film is subtle, nuanced and playfully charming at times, it lacks the scale and the dynamics to engage on the big screen for two hours. The rugged and ragged island setting offers lots of opportunities for images and cinematographer Anna Howard grabs them all: shots of the sea raging onto rocks, shots of the sea through the slats of the glass slats of the lamp, shots of birds - including homing pigeons that need reprogramming - and the vast emptiness of the ocean.
Screened as the opening night film at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival, South Solitary had to carry the extra weight of expectations in such a setting - something the film is too slight to bear.
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SOUTH SOLITARY (M)
CAST: Miranda Otto, Barry Otto, Marton Csokas, Rohan Nichol, Essie Davis
PRODUCER: Miranda Culley, Marian McGowan
DIRECTOR: Shirley Barrett
SCRIPT: Shirley Barrett
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Anna Howard
EDITOR: Denise Haratzis
MUSIC: Mary Finsiterer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Paul Heath
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 29, 2010