When Steve (Shaun Goss) is released from prison, he is unable to connect with his girlfriend Susie (Bree Desborough), as he is still haunted by his relationship with a fellow inmate. Taking a meals-on-wheels job, he meets Rodney (Henri Szeps), a wildly irrepressible older man, who is the full time carer for his invalid mother Franky (Maria Venuti) who, when not confined to a wheelchair, gets about on her modified ride-on lawn mower. Rodney is a backyard magician who loves to fly kites, tap dance, tell stories, juggle and speak in French and Italian. He brings the same vaudevillian exuberance to the way he cares for his mother but is torn between the love he feels for his mother and the desire to lead his own life. Steve is captivated by the older pair's extravagant world of make-believe and a close friendship develops between the men.
Review by Louise Keller:
She may not have many lines, but the presence of Maria Venuti as the elderly, demented cabaret artist Franky haunts this ambitious, bittersweet drama that explores the fine line between fantasy and reality. Itís a difficult role and it would have been easy to overplay it. But she gets the tone just right, making Franky real and not a caricature. As one of her closest friends, I know just how brave her performance is; the high profile singer and showbiz icon who has traded glamour for wrinkles, courtesy of heavy latex make-up. But hers is not the only performance that carries risk. Henri Szeps sets the pace with a riveting performance as Franky's adrift son Rodney, the tragic clown who lives his life according to his mantra: 'With our imagination we make the world'. In an impressive feature debut, Shaun Goss plays the film's catalyst, struggling to deal with his inglorious past, for which he has paid and is still paying a price.
Broaching tough themes that include forgiveness, redemption and dealing with the elderly, first time screenwriter Michael Winchester's vision is fearless, although some of his ideas work better than others. The opening collage of short scenes in which we are introduced to each of the characters, for example, could be reworked but the emotional depth and power of the sentiments expressed are irrefutable. It's an audacious directing debut by Owen Elliott, who manages Winchester's vision with great proficiency. He also edited the film.
When we first meet Rodney wearing a clown mask, he is performing magic tricks over the back fence to mesmerised, laughing children. Rodney is perpetually in up-mode, his animated, theatrical manner persisting throughout the day as he lovingly cares for Franky; he medicates her with morphine, dresses and bathes her, the scene for which Venuti is topless, a brave moment indeed. Rodney's dreams are symbolised by the kite he flies, soaring high into the skies. We understand why Steve (Goss), who is having difficulty integrating with his friends and girlfriend Susie (Bree Desborough), is drawn to this make-believe world. It is the relationship between Rodney and Steve, in the context of the rose-coloured view of life with Franky, that acts as an emotional trigger for the two men.
Confronting, raw and often surprising, Bathing Franky never compromises its vision as it deals with difficult issues including homosexuality, drug-abuse and palliative care. Gavin Banks' cinematography highlights the rural beauty around Dungog, where the film was shot.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
When I saw the work in progress screening of Bathing Franky at the Dungog Film Festival in 2010, the packed room responded warmly to the film's deeply romantic but melancholy notions about the role of imagination in coping with life. The theme has attracted many cinematic explorations, from the extremes of Life Is Beautiful (1997) to the tragic and moving The Sea Inside (2004). I am not comparing Bathing Franky to these films, but the resonance is inescapable.
The film was made on a budget of dedication, shot around Dungog so it's appropriate that it is finally getting a premiere at Dungog's James Theatre, Australia's oldest cinema, and is the first film to screen on the theatre's new digital projector. Nice synchronicity, connecting the old and the new.
In Bathing Franky, the son, Rodney (Henri Szeps) creates an alternative reality - a sort of magic reality - which filters out most of his life's negatives. Of course the one thing he can't quite filter out is his captivity to the duties and responsibilities of a son to his needy mother. Here in a nutshell filmmakers Owen Elliott and Michael Winchester present us with the complexity of genuine love.
I've been a fan of Szeps' stage work since the mid 80s when as theatre critic for The Australian I was struck by his natural ability to engage an audience with the truth in his work. Szeps is one of those actors who is utterly convincing and draws you to him with his innate charm - tinged with a slightly wicked melancholy. He makes Rodney plausible and fascinating, funny and sad.
Maria Venuti (a long-time friend, just so you know), has a lifetime of experience in performance, albeit mostly on stage as a wonderfully entertaining singer and occasional actor. She took on the challenge of Franky with some hesitation; not because it asks her to shed her glamorous image for the frailties and chaos of old age, but because she was challenged by that task. To her credit, she makes Franky not just cranky but credibly complex. The scene referenced in the title calls for the ultimate sacrifice of vanity from Venuti - and she makes it, with brio.
Shaun Goss makes an impressive Steve, a young man whose emotional life has been thrown into chaos - several times.
Bathing Franky is an intimate film, not suitable for the harsh and bloated ambiance of the multiplex, and while it is modest, it is also sincere. All credit to John L. Simpson of Titan View, who has the guts to distribute films such as The Jammed, Men's Group - and now this.
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BATHING FRANKY (M)
CAST: Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti, Shaun Goss, Bree Desborough, Kath Leahy, Brendan Madigan, Michael Winchester
PRODUCER: Owen Elliott, Michael Winchester
DIRECTOR: Owen Elliott
SCRIPT: Michael Winchester
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Gavin Banks
EDITOR: Owen Elliott
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Amanda Safranko
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Titan View
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Dungog, NSW: June 16; Maitland, NSW June 17; Newcastle, NSW: June 24, 2012 (elsewhere later)