Fringe Review: This Is It

by Jane

Auteur director Dara Gill is bringing to Australian audiences his first feature film, This Is It.  Gill’s short films have shown great promise, with his final short, That Is All, deservedly winning Best Fiction Short at the Australian Film Institute Awards (now the AACTAs), and screening at many of the world’s most prestigious festivals.  The trademark dream quality which made Gill’s films stand out on the international festival market and have garnered him some what of a cult following on Vimeo, however seem to drag and wear when expanded into a long 125 minutes.

Presented to Adelaide’s press-corps Sunday night, followed up with a Q&A with cast members Frank B Mainoo, Malcolm Whittaker and Natalie Kate Randall (Gill himself conspicuously absent) on Monday, This Is It takes the now well established bleak Australian violent drama (recently seen in films such as Snowtown and Animal Kingdom, but following a long line from The Boys) and tries to meld it with the Hollywood hero film model. The resulting film is a confused mash of genres and ideals: a mad mad’s yells, signifying nothing.

Young couple Jim (Whitaker) and Caroline (Randall) are very much in love. On a seemingly uneventful walk through the woods, Jim finds himself stumbling upon an old suitcase. That same day, Caroline finds in the post a series of photographs taken of her without her awareness.  The couple is shaken, but otherwise resolved to not let their discoveries affect their relationship.  The next day, Caroline disappears, and what ensues is Jim’s chase of the villain (Mainoo) who has kidnapped her.

Gill’s strongest strength is his eye for composition, and This Is It looks quite unlike any other Australian feature to be released on such a scale. While many cinematographers are increasingly frustrated with the limitations of DSLR Cameras and the 5D, you would be aware of none of these issues watching Peter B Cohen’s work. This is It exploits the best features of the 5D: the crisp lines and the shallow depth of focus paired with a muted colour grade pull us in much more intimately to these characters than, unfortunately, their personalities.

Because therein lies the central issue to the film: these characters have no personalities. In a stunningly reductionist and racist turn of events, Mainoo’s villain character isn’t even afforded a name.  Jim alternates between the tropes of “Aussie larakin” and “Hollywood hero” without a stumble – but also without a cause.  Caroline is a lone woman amongst a sea of men, and her character is so two-dimensional it is almost shocking she isn’t barefoot and pregnant.

This journalist did not get to ask about the inherent misogyny of the work, but one supposes from Randall revealing she is working on a gothic, feminist short novel that she herself is suffering from the anti-female sentiments put forward.

The film was largely improvised, and this provided great tension to some of the scenes: in particular a knife fight in the winding stairwell of an abandoned hospital and Mainoo holding up a liquor store. Overall, the three performers do very well with what little characterisation they have been given to work off; and one hopes they will be given the chance to develop and truly show the Australian industry what they can do in further films.  Randall, in particular, shows stunning subtlety in the scenes filled with quiet and stress.

While it is heartening to see a film with such a large budget (whether it and the use of CGI was strictly necessary is a question for another time) managed to find such significant funding outside of Screen Australia, it is a pity Gill lowered himself and his craft to the point of involving sponsorship quite so much.  The garish product placement – the less said about the Fruit Loops the better – stands quite out of step with the rest of his work.

Ultimately, This Is It tries to have it all, and so can’t really have anything. Indeed, right up until the last moments the film is hedging its bets employing the use of multiple endings.  At the press conference the cast members described this technique as expanding on the dream quality of the work, and referencing the fact that “in life there are no clear endings.” One supposes, however, that Gill simply couldn’t make up his mind which film he was creating.  As Caroline leaves us for the last time over a field of daisies we get some beautiful strains of the type of work Gill can create. If that is it, This Is It shows us far too little.

While I feel the film This Is It would be rather terrible, the theatre work This Is It was hilarious and brilliantly done.  Having the panel hosted by Katrina Sedgwick – the outgoing director of the Adelaide Film Festival and incumbent head of arts at ABC – was an absolute stroke of genius and the best casting in this year’s Fringe.  This “review” was written from things brought up by the panel, answers of questions from the audience, the press pack for the film and stuff I made up. Clearly, my made-up opinions on their made-up film shouldn’t actually be a reflection on their work as artists.

While some of the set up seemed a bit too long – so many trailers that said so little! All the posturing for applause! – it was more than made up for in the performance. The three actors were the right combination of insipid and “celebrity” and the whole set up – from the This Is It drop to the press kits – really made us feel like we were “there.”

It took a couple of questions for the audience to really get into the swing, but when everyone did it was grand. I felt the work ended way too soon, and the audience tumbled out of the theatre excitedly chatting away with what questions we had been planning to ask.  And yes, I was going to ask about the misogyny. 

Team Mess – Dara Gill, Sime Knezevic, Frank Mainoo, Natalie Randall and Malcolm Whittaker – presents This Is It.  At AC Arts X Space for the Adelaide Fringe. Season closed.