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After Lantana’s critical and commercial success, Ray Lawrence has made another complex film whose origins lie in Middle America a generation ago, adapted to contemporary Australia. Jindabyne defies genres and labels, and instead, offers audiences a chance to enjoy cinematic ambiguity, as intended, Lawrence tells Andrew L. Urban.

Somewhat drained - both emotionally and physically - on the morning after the Sydney premiere of Jindabyne, director Ray Lawrence slumps into the art nouveau armchair of Sydney’s Blue hotel at Woolloomooloo with a sigh. “I’ve hit the wall,” he confesses, but soon perks up as we start talking about his latest film, which defies labels. “A little mystery is a good thing,” he says, “These days everything is over explained. And with film if it’s all explained, the audience doesn’t really participate. There’s a specific audience I’m interested in, who’ve had a lot of life experiences and the things they recognise apply to their own lives.”

The story begins as a grizzly, older man (Chris Haywood), preys on a lone female motorist beside an outback road. On a weekend fishing trip, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone) discover the corpse of the young Aboriginal woman who was driving the car, now floating in the river. Too far from town to go back and report it, they continue fishing another day, but when they go home all hell breaks loose over their decision not to return immediately. Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is especially distraught and the incident brings their marriage to the brink, while the rest of the community is conflicted and confused. Claire tries to make amends for her husband and attempts to bridge the now yawning gap between the young woman’s extended family and the rest of the community. And the predator is lying in wait again.

With its thriller bookend scenes and its central character driven, relationship dramas, Jindabyne defies categorisation or genre. “I like that,” says Lawrence, “but it actually grew organically…I wasn’t interested in making a thriller – maybe we’ve invented a new genre.” The film is based on a Raymond Carver short story, and was written almost 30 years ago, set in middle America. Australian writer Beatrix Christian has adapted it for the screen, adding new and crucial elements – the most substantial being the ethnicity of the young woman whose murdered body is found in the river by four weekend fishing friends. “It was Bee’s idea to make her an Aboriginal girl, and of course then the whole thing opened up and we were balancing the difficulties of relationships and the issues of relationships with the land itself; lots of things just kept piling up … It made the film a lot bigger and a lot more interesting … and a lot harder to identify as a particular sort of film,” he adds with a laugh.

Yet for all the richness this gives the film, Ray Lawrence was always most interested in one specific aspect of the story: “A very small thing – about responsibility, a dilemma … and the mistake the men made [not reporting the corpse immediately]; that was all. Men have changed in 30 years anyway, so I wasn’t interested in making a film about those men … I was interested in just that tiny little structural thing. Then we hung all these things on it.”

"Danger is all round us and it won’t go away"

Some of the things that hang on ‘it’ include the sense of danger in which all our lives are now led. “Danger is all round us and it won’t go away,” Lawrence says. In the film, there is a poignant shot of the constant presence of danger, but with nature itself biting back, as if defending itself against inhumanity.

When it came to casting, Lawrence says he “always wanted an Irishman, because I wanted a sub-textual parallel between the Aboriginal culture and the Irish culture. So that’s how Gabriel Byrne ended up in it. The other characters came out of what sort of men live in a small town and what sort of relationship was with each other, was there a hierarchy within the group of four. Casting it was easy, there are so many great actors in this country.”

As for Laura Linney’s role as Claire, Lawrence explains that an Australian actress was originally cast, but she pulled out. “There aren’t many great actresses of that age who aren’t movie stars,” says Lawrence, “and Laura just grabbed it.” Lawrence says that there would be fewer questions asked about the actress playing the role of Claire if she weren’t American “This country is full of foreigners; English, Irish, French, American … at one stage I even thought of asking Isabelle Huppert … it could be any nationality, someone living here.”

Published July 20, 2006

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