Peter Weir’s dreams | Daily News

Peter Weir’s dreams

Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World
Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is one of the most haunting movies I’ve ever seen. It’s about a group of girls boarded at a private school in Victoria, Australia, who go on an excursion to a mountain – a steep volcano – where four of them inexplicably go missing.

Much of the story is about the attempts of the school, the families of the disappeared, to trace them, while part of it is about the owner of the private school, the questionable tactics she uses to instil discipline in her students, and how she has to face the wrath of parents demanding their children back. This is Australia at the turn of the 20th century – 1901, to be exact – and it’s intriguing not only because of the mystery at the heart of the plot, but more importantly because of its depiction of class relations and class structures.

The film is haunting, but also hauntingly beautiful. Like Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), the entire plot culminates in a dead-end: we don’t know what happened to the girls, except for one who makes it back and can’t remember what happened, only that the school is headed for closure. Australian society at the turn of the 20th century was very much like Sri Lankan society in the mid-19th century.

European society had been established in the metropolis, and elite schools were being built – mostly by missionaries, but also private individuals and, occasionally, the state – which segregated males and females and catered to a clientele of upper middle-class families. These are peripheral to the larger mystery of the story, yet they have a bearing on it. This was the Australian society that filmmakers had rarely obtruded on, and with it, its director Peter Weir broke ground.

Specific theme

Peter Weir is one of the few directors you can call almost perfect. He belongs to just about the same league as Philip Kaufman, Lawrence Kasdan, and Denis Villeneuve. Auteurists in the strictest sense of that term, some of them have been described as iconoclasts, because their work exists outside the mainstream. It’s not hard to pin down their work to a specific theme. In Weir’s case, it has been the loneliness and solitude of individuals: how estranged they can be, and get, from their immediate surroundings.

There’s nothing hooey about how Weir depicts this theme, and as a cinematic leitfmotif, it’s worked every time he’s brought it out onscreen. To me he is the perfect response to the anti-auteurist writings of Pauline Kael, who liked his films very much. Insofar as this distances him from the mainstream, he is, like

Villeneuve, a man who consistently makes movies on his own terms.

Lester James Peries was in Australia at the time Picnic came out, and in an essay he wrote about what he felt seeing it. It’s a real stretch to compare Sri Lanka’s foremost director with Australia’s foremost director, but the similarity is there in how that theme of individuals estranged from their surroundings has been used over and over again by them. Most of the protagonists in Lester’s films fall headlong into a dilemma that threatens to separate and alienate them from the milieu: the boy in Rekava (1956), the Kaisaruvattees in Gamperaliya (1964), and Nissanka in Delovak Athara (1966). As with Weir’s work, the separation is both literal and metaphoric, both physical and metaphysical.

To my mind no director could better compare, or has better compared, with Peries, Satyajit Ray notwithstanding. Of course they came from completely different eras, but both engaged with the same endeavour: reviving their national cinemas, and thereby vindicating an entire art form.

More so than even Peries’s protagonists, Weir’s protagonists frequently encounter a clash of cultures. This is evident from The Last Wave (1977), which pits an Australian middle-class against a mostly silent and unheard Aboriginal lower class. As eerie and full of mystery as Picnic, the film did not fare well at the box-office, though it won rave reviews. Weir’s next excursion was into another theme he frequently enlists in his work, war: Gallipolli (1981), about a group of young men who enlist in the Australian Army in World War I. Mel Gibson shot to fame in that one, and Weir used him for his next film, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). This ranks among Weir’s finest works. It’s about an Australian journalist (Gibson) sent to cover the political situation in Indonesia during the last few years of Sukarno’s rule, and about how he falls in love with an attaché in the British Embassy.

It’s the sort of quiet yet epic romance Hollywood rarely churned out, and for Weir – who directed it through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – it finally landed him in mainstream filmmaking.

Forced into hiding

Witness (1985) is my favourite: Harrison Ford won his only Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a police-officer who discovers corrupt elements within his office and is forced into hiding, through a series of coincidences, with an Amish community. In here Weir’s theme of estrangement and separation reaches its climax when Ford’s character is compelled to seek shelter in undoubtedly the most protected, least open community in American society. The ending is a trifle clichéd if not sentimental, but it is effectively done.

There’s a sequence that Hitchcock would have been proud of: an Amish boy witnesses – he’s the witness of the title – the murder of a police-officer by two of Ford’s colleagues. Along with Ford’s nomination, it also got Weir his first bid for Best Director, though he lost to Sydney Pollack.

The Mosquito Coast (1986) is somewhat of a minor work, though, in my opinion, severely underrated by critics. Roger Ebert disliked it; he found it confusing. Based on a Paul Theroux novel, it charts a man determined to barricade him and his family from Western civilisation and consumerism. His indictment of Anglo-Saxon culture is a classic on its own terms: “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty. We buy what we don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful.” If this endears him to the natives in the small village he purchases for him and his family to spend the rest of their lives in, the grim realities he faces compels him, first to disenchantment, then despair, then paranoia. Mosquito Coast is Theroux’s finest work, and in Weir’s hands it turns out to be a fine adaptation.

Dead Poets Society (1989), on the other hand, is overrated, though I like it as well. Again, Ebert wasn’t a particularly avid fan: he felt it depicted the wrong setting and milieu, and it focused its energies on the incongruous figure of the English Literature teacher, played to perfection by Robin Williams in what I consider to be his finest performance. Like Picnic, it depicts a middle-class embracing a Europeanised culture – I think this is what put Ebert off when he saw it for the first time – and a group of prep school boys repressing their libidinal drives and forced beyond the limits of their endurance to conform to middle-class society. Robin Williams, teary-eyed, sentimental, quite unlike the Mork & Mindy facade he’d put up until then, is particularly effective as the Literature teacher, and the very last scene, sad as it is, is also effective. As far as films revolving around misunderstood but popular and beloved teachers go, Dead Poets Society is right there at the top.

Full of praise

Green Card (1990), Fearless (1993), and The Truman Show (1998) represent Weir at his mid-career phase. I like Green Card, which is at one level about a French national trying to enter the US through his American fiancée; I say “at one level” because as the story progresses, we get to understand and feel the complexity of that man’s love for the fiancée. Fearless and The Truman Show continue Weir’s winning streak, with the latter shoring up his gift for getting serious performances from otherwise unserious actors. In this case, it’s Jim Carrey, the Robin Williams of the late 1990s.

Ebert gave mixed reviews, though he was full of praise for them. These represent an end of an era: compressed in time and space as they are, his work after them enlarges his canvas, harkening back to his early work.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) was, unfortunately, released in the wrong year; 2003 was the year of The Lord of the Rings: The Last King, which swept the board and won in almost every category for which it was nominated at the Oscars. Against a budget of about USD 150 million, then, Master and Commander could gross no more than USD 210 million, pre-empting any hopes for a sequel.

I have not read the Patrick O’Brian novels on which it was based, but it’s an ambitious film, more complex than the synthetic artifice of most adventure films set in the sea. It has Russell Crowe in most complex outing yet, as the commander of a British fleet who sets sail to upend the French in their naval expeditions during the Napoleonic Wars, and it has Paul Bettanny (Vision, Marvel Cinematic Universe) in an Oscar worthy performance as well. I have not watched Weir’s latest work, The Way Back (2010), which is about a Polish prisoner of war’s escape from a Soviet Gulag, though the reviews, as with every other film of his, have been rave so far.