An adaptation of Australian author Tim Winton’s critically acclaimed 2005 collection of short stories, The Turning is a beguiling piece of cinematic storytelling in its purest form.
Its power comes primarily from the inspired approach of project producer Robert Connolly, who tasked 17 Australian directors from a broad range of disciplines – including himself – to each bring a segment of the book to life. This portmanteau approach is notoriously risky, but here the resulting clash of artistic styles perfectly reflects Winton’s haunting prose, which explores the turning points that define the lives of ordinary people.
For this UK theatrical release, eight of the original film’s segments have been excised but, for those unfamiliar with the book, initial viewing may still prove a challenge. Individual stories are clearly defined and fully able to exist independently of the rest, but some are, in fact, connected. This narrative thread is frustratingly difficult to seize, however, as recurring characters are portrayed by different actors and the concept of time and place is entirely abstract.
Such is the case with the primary protagonist (in the loosest sense of the word) Vic Lang, who appears in several of the shorts. We see Vic in various, non-chronological incarnations; including as an adult (played by Josh McConville) in Simon Stone’s moving ‘Commission’, which sees him track down his estranged father (Hugo Weaving), and as a socially awkward teen (Matthew Shanley) in Mia Wasikowska’s darkly comic ‘Long Clear View’.
Elsewhere, interconnecting and separate characters weather their own storms, including Rose Byrne’s abused mother Rae, who ponders the concept of religion in Claire McCarthy’s outstanding centrepiece ‘The Turning’; two young Aboriginal boys (Jahory Blanco and Jarli-Russell Blanco) who flirt with tragedy during a day at the beach in Stephen Page’s dialogue-free ‘Sand’; and a troubled man (Callander Mulvey) who confronts a childhood tragedy in Robert Connolly’s own ‘Aquifer’.
Although this shorter version proves cohesive, it’s worth seeking out the original, in which Vic’s story is more fully explored. As it stands, some of the shorts are more successful than others, although all share common themes of abuse (of all kinds), the practical and spiritual notion of homecoming and the devastating impact of secrets and lies. Despite the universality of these ideas, however, The Turning is defiantly Australian, its characters, cast and locations rooting it staunchly in Antipodean culture; a geographical and ideological anchor that holds firm as the narrative ducks and weaves.
While subsequent viewings undoubtedly benefit a deeper understanding – explanatory booklets were distributed to Australian audiences – The Turning is spellbinding from first look. An exquisite piece of visual art, it’s a film that both celebrates and transcends its masterful source material, and reminds us of the majesty of cinema.
UK Release Date: February 5, 2015
A shorter version of this review was originally published at The List