Film Reviews

Missing the Marx

Judy Davis is often at her ravaged best when she's playing women pulled apart by their own warring impulses. Torn between their isolating desire for freedom and their need for solace, the women in such films as High Tide, Husbands and Wives, The New Age and A Passage to India are in full-blown conflict with themselves. And because Davis can project with a Gorgon's force the intelligence of her characters, these conflicts can seem frighteningly articulate. No actress since Bette Davis has so sharply conveyed the ferocity of her own wits.

Yet with the exception of High Tide, in which she plays an errant mother who reunites with the daughter she left behind, I've not seen Davis in a role I felt truly expressed everything that is in her.

Still, she's one of those actresses one accepts as great eve in second-rank offerings; she is even amazing in those rare instances when she's bad, as in Absolute Power. In an ideal film world, Davis would be stretching her talents to the limit in film after film, but I suppose we should be grateful for what we've got. Her roles in, say, The Ref, Naked Lunch, Blood & Wine or TV's Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story aren't anybody's idea of legendary casting, but at least she's out there working a lot, not fading away.

All this is a preamble to Children of the Revolution, in which Davis plays Joan Fraser, an Aussie Communist who sleeps with Stalin -- their tryst kills him -- and, unbeknown to anyone, has his child. Davis takes her character through almost 40 years of agitprop hellfire, and she has scaled her performance big. The movie, however, is small -- an Australian jest that seems content to be wacky. It's not bad, really, and some of it is clever; it's just that Davis's presence resonates so much more than anything else in the movie that you can only regret the loss of what might have been. She's trying to give a full-scale performance in a political vaudeville.

The main political players in Children of the Revolution -- the ones who are still alive -- speak in the present about actions we flash back to in the past; it's a mockumentary version of the witnesses in Reds. The best extended flashback is Joan's rendezvous with Stalin at the 1952 Party Congress in Moscow. She has been writing political position papers in his honor -- they're mash notes, really -- and Stalin, played by F. Murray Abraham, gets a gander at her photo and asks to see her.

Abraham may seem like a bizarre choice to play Stalin, but the role brings out his gift for antic parody. This totalitarian butcher is one horny comrade; he sets up a private screening of a movie in the Kremlin and proceeds to lightly paw his companion as if he were a teenager making the moves in the balcony on date night. The pairing of Abraham and Davis in this scene, shot in a single moonstruck setup, is nutty perfection: His insane aplomb is a perfect comedic match to her can-this-be-happening-to-me? deadpan. She's both aghast and thrilled.

When Joan has her baby back in Sydney, we wait for him to grow into a Stalinoid monster. That's the satiric point of the piece: One bad seed deserves another. There's something abhorrent about making a comedy about Stalin, but you can't take the film seriously enough to work up much outrage. A true killing comedy would require a great deal more sophistication than first-time writer/director Peter Duncan brings to the party. He hasn't made a black comedy, really; it's more like a black spoof.

As the Party functionary who marries Joan and adopts her child, Geoffrey Rush gives an adept performance in the thankless role of the schleppy also-ran. Rush doesn't rush it, and so, given our memories of him in Shine, he comes across practically in slo-mo. As the grown-up son --named Joe Welch -- Richard Roxburgh manages well the arc from dissolute romantic to nut-brained junior Stalin. Sam Neill does his unflappable bit as a double -- or is it triple? -- agent. (If Neill ever decides to team up with Pierce Brosnan, theaters won't need air conditioning.) Rachel Griffiths, playing the policewoman who loves Joe even after she realizes who his father is, is very good at seeming befogged by ardor. (She may need the fog, since her character's Latvian grandparents were murdered by Stalin.)

But it's Davis who shows the real ardor. She captures, in flashes, the devotional, haranguing tone of the true believer who has continued to keep the faith when the weight of the world is against her. She's furiously pathetic, yet her righteousness keeps its snap right until the end. "The workers' revolution is not a hobby," she yowls, and you don't for a minute doubt her. Davis can make Joan's ardor comic and still show you the passion underneath.

Like Children of the Revolution, Commandments is built upon a promising premise. Seth (Aidan Quinn) is a physician who loses his wife, his house, his job. Feeling targeted by God, he decides to get back at the Almighty by systematically breaking each of the Ten Commandments, one by one. For a while, the scheme of this jobless Job has its fascinations; at least the film isn't oh-so-seriously grotty, like Seven.

But it's still too heavyweight a treatment for what could have been a nifty black comedy. I realize that writer/director Daniel Taplitz is after something meatier -- the funereal atmosphere and portentous jabber tell you that.

But at least Children of the Revolution didn't dress up its high dudgeon in black threads. Commandments, which also stars Courteney Cox and Anthony LaPaglia, comes on like one of those particularly didactic Twilight Zone episodes. It offers a moral: We're all Jobs looking for redemption. Hey, some of us are just looking for a few good movies.

-- Peter Rainer

Children of the Revolution.
Directed by Peter Duncan. With Judy Davis, F. Murray Abraham and Geoffrey Rush.

Rated R.
103 minutes.

Directed by Daniel Taplitz. With Aidan Quinn and Courtney Cox.
Rated R.
87 minutes.

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Peter Rainer