Fans of Tim Winton have been salivating at the prospect of his acclaimed 2004 collection of short stories, The Turning being adapted for cinema in 17 short films, each with a different director, writer and cast.
This was clearly a sought-after gig, as evidenced by the cast – a veritable roll call of the best, brightest and most promising of Australian cinema. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne, Richard Roxburgh, and Miranda Otto all appear, as do David Wenham and Mia Wasikowska in directors' chairs, along with a string of young up-and-comers. This is a passion project; an elaborate and recklessly ambitious creation of Robert Connolly, culminating in an exquisite three-hour cinematic experience. Indulgent? If you're a fan it's like luxuriating in a warm bath.
Winton's writing comfortably lends itself to film because it is so evocative of place and time. The language, while spare, is somehow able to transport the reader into a story they can taste, feel and see, even smell. The same is true of this material once it hits the big screen. It's a mesmerising experience.
Each of these stories stands on its own, but there are narrative threads woven throughout, mostly through the character Vic Lang, who appears several times and from different perspectives – in middle age through the eyes of his wife , as a university student working with his Mum, as a small boy obsessed with his father's rifle, in his twenties delivering bad news to his estranged father, and as a teenager from the perspective of a female admirer he hardly knew.
It's surely true of all adaptations of fiction to film, but the subtleties of these stories and the interweaving of the plot mean that it will be best appreciated by those who have read the book.
It's not easy to summarise such disparate narratives, but essentially The Turning is about everyday people who are broken and scarred, wounded and wounding. It's about the bewilderment of childhood, the anxieties and awakenings of adolescence, the promise and possibility of youth. It ponders sexual awakening, first loves, and the disappointments of middle age. There are many turnings and they are frequently wrong turns. Decisions made, or not made – to get into that car, to reach out for that kiss, to send that letter, to speak angry words, to walk away or not. There are no neat endings, and rarely are there resolutions. Characters live with resentments and brokenness and damage that can't be undone. “The past is in us and not behind us. Things are never over,” says one, as he ponders the harm we do to each other, “… the heat each of us leaves in our wake.” There's nostalgia for lost days of youth and dreams that once sustained and energised the lives of the characters but now look like a sick joke.
All of this is captured beautifully and uniquely in each of these short films. Winton is so essentially Australian and yet somehow his writing converts for overseas audiences. The same will surely be true of these renditions of what have become beloved stories. The country they describe is one of harsh beauty – a wondrous and dangerous place. As is typical in Winton, there is plenty of fishing, surfing, camping and engagement with the natural world – sometimes with dire results. Alongside tenderness, love and loyalty we see the ravages of alcohol, an ever-present threat of violence and at times its jolting reality. There is laughter, kindness and joy as well as cruelty, ruefulness and melancholy.
Places and spaces matter in Winton's work. They shape the characters and form their identities in ways that are permanent but mysterious, even to the characters themselves. There's a spirituality to these stories, which is typical of Winton's writing. This is especially true in the sense of connectedness to the land, which evokes an almost indigenous sensibility. It's fitting therefore that a number of indigenous actors play important roles in these films.
But it's in the story “The Turning,” which lends its name to the title of the collection, that we come closest to a religious statement from Winton, and this is faithfully conveyed in the film version by director Claire McCarthy. I have heard this story described as one of the great conversion narratives of modern literature, and it's difficult to argue with that.
Raelene, played by Rose Byrne, is the mother of two small kids, living in a caravan park in a coastal town Angelus, with her violent and abusive husband Max (Matt Noble). When she meets Sherry, who is staying at the park for a few weeks before she and her husband Dan move into their new home, the two women immediately strike a friendship. Sherry is clearly faring better than Rae, but she's a good listener, she is not judgemental and offers kindness that Rae badly needs. Rae is drawn to this couple who, even beyond the obvious, seem to have something she doesn't have. When she discovers that something is a Christian faith, she's disgusted and angry and wants to run a mile.
it's also a stunning portrayal of the allure of faith and, particularly, the figure of Jesus
But over time, Sherry and Dan's care for her irresistibly draws Rae into the story of Christianity and the difference it had made in their lives. They are anything but patronising. Dan is a recovering alcoholic and, having made a mess of things, he and Sherry have come to Angelus for a second shot at life. They need it. And the grace they feel they've received, they want to pass on to Raelene. “What'd it feel like when you turned?” Rae asks Sherry, concerning her conversion. “Opened me up like a knife through butter,” Sherry replies. A tacky snow-cone figure of Jesus forms a talismanic object for Rae as she faces an ever-more-violent Max. She clings to the image of a muscular Jesus who can rescue her from her dire circumstances and deliver her new life, a fresh start.
This is no easy, feel good tale. It's brutal and confronting and unsentimental. But it's also a stunning portrayal of the allure of faith and, particularly, the figure of Jesus. In this case that figure is a caricature of the real thing and yet, for Rae, in the infancy of her faith, she senses that it's Jesus and not Max who has her life in his hands. “He's every f#%*ing thing you aren't!” Rae screams at Max while he bashes her. While Raelene's fate is ambiguous, Max's is not. He has the smell of death about him and, despite his physical power, he is a diminished character, as she, buoyed by possibilities and new insights, grows stronger, more sure of herself and is full of hope. “She was free,” writes Winton. “She had already outlived him.”
Plenty of people could view this remarkable story as an interesting observation of people turning to a religion they barely understand out of desperation and the need to believe in something beyond their own miserable existences. Perhaps that's what it is. But knowing a little of Winton's own spiritual journey, many viewers will recognise a mysteriously powerful rendition of the profound difference faith can make to a life.
There is much to celebrate in The Turning, which is given fresh life in these complex portraits on the screen. They powerfully demonstrate the potential of the best art to mine human emotions, to articulate feelings of loss, hatred and self-loathing. But there is also love and forgiveness and unmistakable beauty and wonder. Somehow Winton's work, no matter how bleak, maintains a redemptive quality. It's one of his many gifts that are honoured in surprising ways in this innovative cinematic re-imagining of a much-loved creation.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
This article originally appeared at ABC Religon and Ethics.