FAFA: High Tide (1987)


About a week ago, I announced another crazy assignment, posed for myself out of sheer madness. Whether it was a procrastinating delusion or an actual insight into what is missing from film criticism, I made up a new segment of Film Blerg which I call FAFA (a.k.a the Favourite Australian Film Assignment.) Without having imposed any time restrictions or word limitations, my aim is to talk about as many Australian films as I possibly can. Hopefully this effort will ascertain a definitive personal answer to the question: What is your favourite Australian film?

An exceptional film will inaugurate the project with the first FAFA post commenting on Gillian Armstrong’s Hide Tide.

Released in 1987, High Tide predominantly is surrounded by a story featuring three generations of women. Lillie (Judy Davis) is a backup singer for an Elvis impersonator (Frankie J. Holden.) She is a drifter; a nomad. She stumbles into a town on tour and becomes stranded in a caravan park when her car breaks down. Here she discovers the daughter she left behind some ten years ago. Ally (Claudia Karvan) is the 12-year-old child in question and has been brought up by her grandmother Bet (Jan Adele.) There is a tumultuous history between Bet and Lillie and Bet’s distaste for Lillie becomes evidently clear within seconds of their reuniting.

Soon the truth comes out, and this is when the shit really hits the fan. But only in the best dramatic and sensitive possible way. I am tempted to reveal more, but I simply do not want to spoil any other plot points from this truly fantastic story.

Laura Jones wrote the screenplay and has gone onto adapting some major literature works into well made and popular productions such as A Thousand Acres, Angela’s Ashes, Portrait of a Lady and Oscar and Lucinda. Her story breathes reality. Lillie is a character whose actions seem difficult to understand, but through the progress of the film, gain an understanding. This also lends to the huge talents of Miss Judy Davis (no doubt, a perennial fixture in the FAFA project.)

One particular moment that significantly stands out involves one of the revelations between Davis and Karvan’s characters. Lillie and Ally first “meet” each other when Lillie has become completely inebriated in the toilet block of the caravan park that Ally lives in. Ally and her boyfriend discover Lillie and eventually take her back to her caravan. Lillie and Ally meet again soon after this, where Lillie has managed to completely forget the help she received in getting back to her bed. Lillie and Ally have a jovial conversation about who Lillie is, what she does for a living and where she lives, etc. It is not until they are in the laundry room that Bet appears and Lillie realises within an instant that Ally is her daughter.

It all comes down to a look that Davis gives that leaves me feeling completely gob smacked. Her reaction is instantaneous and the look of shock is palpable. What I love about Judy Davis is that she can take my breath away from just a simple glance. Her gaze then turns into an inquisitive scrawl as she follows Ally who is quickly ushered away by Bet. It is here where we truly meet Lillie for the first time. She has no armour to hide behind. No wig, no drinks, no nothing. She is confronted with a reality that she abandoned long ago. Appropriately, Davis won the AFI Award for Best Actress for her role as Lillie. The film also won for Adele as Best Supporting Actress. Claudia Karvan also received a nomination, as did Armstrong, Jones in their roles and for Best Sound and Best Film.

This is the second time that I’ve viewed High Tide and I thought it would be the perfect film to kick start FAFA. I am becoming more in love with Gillian Armstrong’s work with each visit that I make. Her focus is so subtle, and yet supplies so much to the viewer. She handles her characters delicately and there is little room for judgement. Lille and Bet are simply who they are. They are human and they make mistakes. And lucky for us, we get to see them make even more mistakes that are glorious and heartbreaking in delivery.

Lengthwise, Armstrong adheres to my criteria of a perfect film; which is about an hour and a half in length (High Tide clocks in at 101 minutes.) The only strange element of the film resides in the character of Mick (played by Davis’s real life husband Colin Friels.) I understand the purpose of his character; to reveal the softer, romantic side of Lillie that we cannot see when she is with Ally. However, his entry and exit in the film seem a little misplaced. Despite this, it is always fun to see a real life husband and wife play opposite in a film. Davis and Friels are no exception.

Recently I found some footage from the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 where My Brilliant Career screened and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The main focus of the piece seemed to surround the triple-female authorship with Armstrong as the director, Davis as the star and Margaret Fink as the producer. It seems that this triple-female authorship remains in Davis and Armstrong’s second collaboration.

In short, I love High Tide. The first hour literally flew past before I knew it, and I believe this is because I was so engrossed in every element of the film; especially the acting, the writing and the direction. The score has become a tad dated, but to me, this adds a particular charm. A modern score today would have perhaps made the film too dramatically heavy.

I could write on and on about High Tide, as I believe it is a realistic portrayal of a modern day family. This is not a typical family you see (even today!! )  on the big or small screen. I know there’s a thesis lying in my brain somewhere where I shall save all of my sharp observations for that.

As my love for the film has been proclaimed numerous times through this piece, I will just say it one more time. I love this film. God knows I’ll especially love it on my next viewing which I intend to do with a bottle of wine and some cheese and crackers. The newly released DVD (through Umbrella Entertainment) also features a DVD commentary from Jones and Armstrong. This is something that will naturally require another viewing. Not that I’m complaining…

4 blergs

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