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Adelaide Film Festival review: F*!#ing Adelaide

Film

“I love Adelaide,” Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s character says, with a sharp edge of warning, at one point in this six-part series which premiered in an end-to-end screening at the Adelaide Film Festival.

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Her character, the superficially sunny Kitty, is fierce about her Adelaide home, perhaps in response to fact that her older half-siblings Eli (Brendan Maclean) and Emma (Kate Box) have both left the city, and their family’s hefty baggage, behind.

Only Kitty remains at home – a typical old stone Adelaide cottage – with mother Maude (Pamela Rabe), a literal room full of baggage, and a secret life.

Eli, whose “fabulous” life in Sydney is anything but, and Emma, who does some unexplained aid work in South East Asia with her husband and daughter, have been enticed home by Maude, on the thin pretext of cleaning out their childhood stuff before she ditches it.

For Eli, who promised to return to Adelaide only for Christmas and funerals, it’s convenient: he’s lost his job singing (badly and ridiculously) in an empty Sydney pub and has been kicked out of his flat. Emma’s return, with husband Toby (Beau Travis Williams) and daughter Cleo (Audrey Mason-Hyde), is less convincing – a frayed spot in a script with more than a few holes.

Directed by Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays), the episodes each focus on one of the main characters. The set-up – starting with Eli – is full of broad humour, some niche references to Adelaide (Kitty’s gushing over Peel Street’s small bars had the premiere audience laughing), and intrigue as the oddly disparate siblings start to hone in on the stern and elusive Maude’s real reasons for calling them home.

The “Fucking Adelaide” theme – sometimes repeated in the clever soundtrack which, in one episode, echoes the main character’s thoughts – is about how closely linked everyone is in this town and, in one scene, how wide and empty the streets are. The theme doesn’t really go anywhere in the end – there’s no real sense of the city beyond Maude’s home. It could be set in any small, “respectable” city.

Most of the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic. Indeed, the siblings are rather horrible to each other, particularly in a scene where they attempt to burn the precious (to her) possessions of Kitty, a hoarder who holds on to some scrappy belongings of “Geoff”, her father of whom she has few memories, and the ex-husband of Maude – hated by Eli and Emma presumably for his abusive behaviour which is hinted at from time to time.

The relationships unfold, and unravel, from there, with themes of gender identity, sexuality, nostalgia, motherhood and the meaning of home being teased out – some more successfully than others.

There are some excellent performances – notably Cobham-Hervey, Box, and a brief and subtly sinister appearance by Geoff Morrell. While Rabe is a fine actor, her accent is decidedly non-Adelaidean and her character is difficult to comprehend, which may or may not be the point – that she has sunk into motherhood to the point that she has lost herself (although, on the other hand, she gives indications of also being powerful, outgoing, smart and compassionate).

This uncertainty sums up why I found it hard to embrace this work: the tone of the piece, for me, doesn’t meld with the themes. As a result, the viewer is sometimes sent signals which are discordant, in some cases, distressingly so.

My unease about tone reached a pinnacle in the final episode. It’s hard to describe what happens without spoilers: suffice to say that a character is subjected to a gross indignity, which exacerbates a previous act of brutality, while the cast continues on with what seems to be comedic banter.

It might have been an attempt by the makers to demonstrate that very human tendency to inappropriate humour at times of trauma, but it certainly didn’t feel like that: it just seemed terribly misjudged. I can’t imagine how a person who had been impacted by domestic violence would process this scene (indeed, the entire episode).

It is indicative of the confusion in tone and message of this work which I really wanted to love: just what is it saying about domestic violence, motherhood, gender, mental illness and our city? I honestly don’t know.

F*!#ing Adelaide will screen at the Mercury Cinema on Friday (October 13) at 9.15pm, and later in the year on ABC-TV and iView.

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