Set in Australia in the 50s at a Catholic boarding school for youngsters interested in becoming part of the Brotherhood, Simon Burke stars as young teen Tom, who although dedicated, has issues with masturbation and sinful thoughts, and also wets the bed. Meanwhile, the authority figures are having their own struggles, with somewhat laidback, beer-loving Brother Victor (Nick Tate), and borderline psychotically repressed Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) both tempted by pleasures of the flesh. Thomas Keneally (!) turns up as a visiting priest, Charles McCallum and Jonathan Hardy play two of the Brothers, Anne Phelan tries to pick up Tate in a pub, and her “Prisoner” alum Sheila Florence plays an Irish cook (Oh no, don’t put Lizzie in charge of the tucker!) at the school.
I don’t know if it’s because the TV miniseries sequel deals with darker subject matter or if it’s my own bias rearing its head, but this 1976 directorial debut from writer-director Fred Schepisi (“Roxanne”, “Evil Angels”) is a bit lighter and more innocuous than I was expecting, for the most part. Instead of paedophilic priests (subject matter that perhaps is more modern than this film’s era), the film is really about the stifling atmosphere of a Catholic boys’ boarding school on both staff and students, the latter being in the midst of a sexual awakening (If you ask me, the Catholic church really shouldn’t be involved in guiding youngsters on the verge or in the midst of puberty, and not for the reason you’re thinking, either. I just don’t think they’re equipped for it. Others may disagree, which is fine. I’m neither an expert on education, child development, nor Catholicism). Apparently semi-autobiographical, it’s an interesting look at a time and world that I’m not especially familiar with.
Future “Play School” host Simon Burke gives a very brave debut film performance, having to engage in both masturbation and mutual masturbation scenes, as well as playing a chronic bed-wetter. It’s awkward stuff, but intentionally so, and Burke (currently starring in the TV miniseries sequel as I write this in September 2014) handles himself with great maturity, and probably deserved his AFI award. The one you’ll remember, however, is the underrated Arthur Dignam, whose portrait of sexual repression driven to breaking point is mesmerising. Charles McCallum also shines as the aging Brother Sebastian, who basically tells Burke he should leave the school and live life to its fullest rather than submit his entire life to serving the church and God. Celebrated author Thomas Keneally is interesting casting as a visiting missionary Father Marshall, who initially comes across as affable and cheery, and then delivers the most incredible fire-and-brimstone description of eternal damnation you’ll ever hear. It was almost scary enough to have me praying to every deity I could think of, and I’m an agnostic atheist! I must say, though, that my modern perspective and general distrust of the Catholic church might’ve led me to see Keneally’s early scenes as more creepy than cheery and affable, as they were most likely designed to be. He made my skin crawl to be honest. Still, for a non-actor, Keneally is surprisingly solid, though both he and the director don’t seem to recall his performance too fondly for some reason.
Less effective is the frankly miscast Nick Tate (who nonetheless was the co-winner of the Best Actor AFI with young Burke). When you see him out of his formal clothes and in the pub, you feel like that’s where he belongs, he just doesn’t seem like a teacher, let alone a Catholic one. That, and an early scene where he seems a little too obsessed with kids having erections and their sexual orientation (and uses some very unholy language to boot) led me to be completely befuddled by the film’s ending. It was only on reflection that I realised that his character was meant to be somewhat liberal and well-meaning in comparison to some of the other teachers. Casting someone other than Tate (not a terribly affable presence onscreen. Remember “The Coolangatta Gold”?) would’ve helped this confusion somewhat.
Nonetheless, this is interesting, occasionally powerful stuff, and a helluva subject for someone to take on as their film debut. If you can remove any prejudices or pre-conceived notions you might have of what the film is about (which are likely to be wrong), and see it for the awkward coming-of-age-in-a-repressed-institution story that it is, the film is worthy. Dignam is particularly outstanding.