Winning three AFI awards in the year of its release (including Best Film), Flirting continues the teenage adventures and misadventures of Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), the central character in writer/director John Duigan’s previous Australian classic The Year My Voice Broke.
Set in 1965, a few years after the events of the first film, Danny is now 17 and living in an all-male boarding school situated in rural New South Wales across a lake from an all-female boarding school. Over the course of a school year, we come to know and spend time with both schools equally but the plot stays mainly focused on Danny’s experiences at his school; with its insecure student body and ultra-authoritarian faculty (there’s a fantasy sequence where a teacher with a particular fondness for the cane is envisioned as a Nazi commandant), but also with Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton), the single black girl at the ladies college whose father is a political activist in her native Uganda. The two begin a relationship that causes turmoil between their two campuses and can only end badly.
The cast of the film would all go on to find great success in Australia and abroad. While Taylor was already established by the earlier film at the time of this movie’s release, the advertising focused mainly on a post Dead Calm but pre-Hollywood Nicole Kidman in her supporting role as the prefect that understands the relationship between the two but can’t openly condone it. Thandie Newton, who would go on to find success in both independent film and mainstream vehicles like Mission Impossible 2, does excellently as the confident and intelligent Adjewa in her debut role. Naomi Watts appears briefly as one of her friends at the school. The key performance of the film however is Taylor. As Danny, he inhabits the role of the awkward teenager completely and is the beating heart and soul of this film and the previous.
Duigan’s direction is extremely subtle. He perfectly captures the pain and the pleasures of adolescence, and handles the love story beautifully. Where other films would steer into melodrama, Duigan differentiates the romance in this film by making it painfully, and like Danny, awkwardly real every step of the way. He also provides the viewer with Danny’s beautifully poetic and warmly delivered voice over that not only acts as a window into the character but the way he experiences the world.
The film ends with the inevitable separation of the pair as Adjewa is forced to return to her war torn homeland to take care of her siblings. Comprised of news reel footage, real or otherwise, as Danny reads her letters, Duigan crafts a heart wrenching sequence of suspense that confirms just how much we have come to love the characters that he’s created.
Touching, sincere and beautifully made, Flirting ranks as a sequel that more than holds its own against its predecessor.
Flirting was theatrically released in Australia on March 21, 1991.