Fred Schepisi has not made a film in his native Australia since the compelling A Cry in the Dark (1988) which was based on the 'Dingo Baby' case, and starred a memorable Meryl Streep accentuating her Australian as the distraught mother.
In The Eye of the Storm, the cold, calculating widow Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) is about to die in leafy Sydney. The fragile state of the widow’s health, and, more importantly, the disposal of her formidable fortune are on the minds of about six people. Not least her two grown-up children, but also the staff who look after her at her palatial home, and the elderly lawyer who looks after her affairs.
Elizabeth's son is the extrovert, West End-based actor Basil (Geoffrey Rush); her daughter is the chronically dissatisfied Dorothy, played by Judy Davis, who also wrote the screenplay. Dorothy lives in Paris and spouts French in times of distress, much to mother's chagrin.
There is a lot of fuss among the staff about Dorothy. What should they call her when she arrives, given that she is now a princess, from her former marriage to a French nobleman? Princess she may be but it’s merely a title, and like her brother she does not have much cash to her name.
Having flown in from London, Basil tips the porter and asks him to keep it secret that he is staying at the hotel. After gathering sufficient courage to meet mother, he tells her that the plane was delayed at Bangkok. She lets him know in her shrewd and shrewish way that she sees right through his deceit. She also reminds him that she has read poor reviews in the English newspapers for his King Lear, even as he reminds her that he has been knighted for his services to theatre .
Meanwhile, in much of her ramblings Elizabeth indiscreetly recalls her indulgent, promiscuous life. Hallucinating on morphine, she imagines that she is back at the holiday villa where she betrayed Dorothy. Suffice to say that this reunion will be more fraught and complicated than that between mother and son.
Played out in a kind of early-1970s Australian Upstairs Downstairs scenario, Schepisi's adaptation of Patrick White’s novel moves tolerably well through its air of fusty grandeur, oozy sensuality and decay. But sadly, the attempts at Brideshead-style wit are clunky and tedious.
The truth is that you can only like son and daughter in little glancing hits, the mother hardly at all. This reviewer has not read the original novel, so he can merely surmise if the original story - written by an author who won the Nobel Prize for fiction - had humanised the characters in a more nuanced portrayal. Or, to put it another way, has the film adaptation deliberately honed in on aspects of character that are not meant to attract much of our sympathy?