So this is The Turning: a collection of short stories by Tim Winton, Australia’s best-selling collection of short stories no less, centering around the fictional Western Australian small town of Angelus, and the lives of people there, especially glimpses into the life and relationships of lawyer Vic Lang.
Now, The Turning has been turned into a collection of short films collected into one longer compilation, each film reflecting one of the stories in the book. ‘A unique cinema event’ the promotional copy reads.
Would it be wrong of me to point out that ‘unique’ isn’t always a good thing?
In this case, part of the uniqueness is that each short film has been made by a different director, each film has a different cast. Some of the films are impressionistic, rather than following the narrative of the original story. Some are more driven by the director’s theatre or circus background.
As such, what happens on screen might be unique, but is not altogether compelling, especially given the three-hour runtime (complete with old style intermission). And this is all the more the shame given its subject: The Turning is incredibly compelling literature, and displays in nearly every line why Tim Winton is one of Australia’s greatest living novelists.
Two of the early films in the movie showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the scattershot approach, and of the difficulty of bringing Winton’s richly-hued prose to the screen.
Big Sky, the first story in the collection, is about the ill-fated trip out of town of two teenage boys on the right side of their university exams but the wrong side of the results. In it, director Warwick Thornton chooses to use almost the full text of the story in the voiceover, even eschewing dialogue. The result is beautifully shot, yet somehow stilted, the richness of the prose overshadowing the work of the actors.
The next, Abbreviation, is about Vic Lang, and the first awakenings of teenage romance with a girl with an odd impairment. However, director Jub Clerc chooses to do it near wordlessly, stripping away all the details and dialogue of the story, to highlight only the central relationship, and casting the couple as indigenous kids.
While bold, this choice becomes jarring, and more so as the cast keeps changing for each films. All we have to go on are the occasional names that are mentioned, but even those are sometimes missing given the terseness of the dialogue and the general lack of voiceover. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that characters recur in different stories, and part of the beauty of the book is being able to piece together the narrative of a life through the different snapshots, as we hear echoes of pasts and futures, as we guess at the carriage of a relationship based on its wrecks and hurt.
I can’t help wonder what could have been, if these details had better coalesced together under one director.
There are still some individual highlights: ‘Damaged Goods’ uses a split-screen visual to keep past and present in view, as Vic’s wife in the present struggles to understand her husband’s obsession with a girl in his past. Susie Porter carries a suburban weary dignity to great effect as Vic’s mum Carol in ‘On Her Knees’. ‘Long Clear View’ brings in a voiceover to highlight a young teenage Vic’s early preoccupations.
Most of the films choose not to use much of Winton’s words which would be okay, except Winton’s prose without his prose is, well, just his plots. Which sometimes don’t amount to all that much, because it is Winton’s ability to illuminate the inner life (especially of men), and paint in bold, sometimes painful detail the sacred mundane that makes the book work.
The films are at their best when the actors are given the room to echo the edginess of Winton’s prose onscreen. ‘Reunion’, for example, is outstanding, full of subtle nuance that hint at the unsaid details of the relationships on screen (perhaps unsurprising given the leads are Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett). ‘Commission’, directed by David Wenham, stars Hugo Weaving as Vic’s dad, radiating a melancholic gravitas, and is also a standout.
Which brings us to the title film, ‘The Turning’. Because this is why I went to see the film in the first place (apart from being a Winton fan). Because the titular story is about a Christian conversion, hence the title. As such, to my knowledge, it’s one of the only Christian conversions portrayed in recent mainstream fiction.
In it, Rae is a mother of two, trapped in an abusive relationship, and living in a trailer park. She meets Sherry and Dan, who, the book says, “‘had something special. She listened … There was kindness in her. Straightaway she was a friend.” To her bemusement finds out that they’re born-again Christians. Nevertheless, she almost can’t help herself from finding out more about Jesus.
“What’s it like?” Rae asks Sherry in the film. “I don’t mean what it’s about, I mean what’d it feel like?”
Sherry pauses, then answers.
“It was like a hot knife going into me. This knife just opening me up. I could see all this possibility in the world. All the hope and beauty in the world where all I felt before was hollow.”
“Sounds sexy,” Rae says.
What does it feel like to become Christian? For me, if I’m honest, my ‘turning’ didn’t feel like much. And yet the more that I am renewed in his Word, the more that I do see possibility, hope and beauty—not in the sense of living too much for this world, but knowing the world that is to come, I can live in the right perspective of this world.
There’s something of the way our heads and hearts are so hard-wired for drama, that sometimes we can mistake what is dramatic for what is true. A ‘turning’ doesn’t need to be dramatic in a worldly sense, for it to be real enough to move the heavens towards joy. (Luke 15:10)
The ending of the film version of ‘The Turning’ edges onto trite in the way it’s portrayed, but is saved by being deeply anchored in the desperation of Rae’s situation. For her, hope is not an academic pursuit.
Here’s how the story version ends: “She was free. She had already outlived him.” We can only marvel at the fact that eternal life can begin in a moment of turning.