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« Review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming" | Main | Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame »
Friday
Jul072017

Review: Alison Maclean Returns with 'The Rehearsal'

By Glenn Dunks

Alison Maclean is not a prolific filmmaker. While her resume is littered with TV (Sex and the City, The Tudors), music videos (Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”) and short films (the superb domestic horror Kitchen Sink, and a segment in Subway Tales), films are few and far between. Her third feature is The Rehearsal and if its release feels awfully quiet then you can probably thank the near 20-year gap between feature projects and her return to her native New Zealand with a thorny film about tricky subject matter and written with a sense of ambiguous mystery.

My knowledge of New Zealand cinema is by far not as thorough as Australian film, but Maclean’s Crush is perhaps my favourite from there that isn’t Heavenly Creatures or The Piano. It is a film rife for rediscovery, not least of all for the delicious performance by Marcia Gay Harden at its centre (it also competed for the 1992 Palme d’Or). I was less enamoured by Jesus’ Son, a film that I assume stuck too closely to the often chaotic and episodic short story structure of its source novel to find its own groove, although Maclean’s experiences in the vast expanses of New Zealand and Canada gives her a unique advantage in framing the emptiness of the American mid-west and finding idiosyncrasies for her characters.

The Rehearsal is a much different style of film. It’s smaller in scope in terms of its core narrative, less tied to and reliant on its location and a sprawling need for its characters to escape whatever it is that nevertheless confines them to their place in life.

But where it expands upon, or at least matches and compliments, her previous works is in its reach of themes. While the action is limited exclusively to a young acting school student (James Rolleston as Stanley) and his misguided appropriation of a sexual abuse story ripped from the news headlines for a performance piece, The Rehearsal nonetheless tackles a litany of complex ideas including the ethics of using reality for art and the sacrifices artists make, the absurdity and obviousness of art, the questionable concept of teaching performance, how young people perform at building identity, tricky sexual politics, generational conflict, and all of that with a decidedly anti-authoritarian streak.

Quite interesting considering the current climate around the world, race – Rolleston is of Maori descent – isn’t a factor at all, although class does occasionally rear its head. In one of the most deftly filmed sequences, the audience is subtly introduced to Stanley’s father in a scene that comes somewhat out of nowhere considering the film's perogatives and yet which plays dividends in a perfect sequence of roleplaying wherein Rolleston feels as alive and electric as any male actor this year.

Adapted by Maclean and Emily Perkins, the screenplay takes the structural games of Catton’s novel and recontextualises them to film. Signalling just part of why this is such a smart work of adaptation above perhaps almost everything else – including refocusing the story on one of the novel’s side characters and changing the setting to a drama school – Maclean has taken inspiration from Catton’s writing style where the line between real life and the stage is often unclear, and made a film full of characters with whom we are routinely asked the question whether they are being genuine or acting. Furthermore, are they acting for themselves or for others.

Considering this is set in a drama school, it should probably be expected that there is much talent on display. It is lead by the esteemed Kerry Fox, who is gifted a role that has to subtly swerve being hard-ass and personable with what can easily be read as an ever so slight touch of horniness for the leading man. That leading man is a perfectly cast Rolleston, having grown up from the star of Taika Waititi’s Boy into a man who is handsome enough to convince an audience that a future in acting is believable, but reserved and virginal enough to make his struggles and his naivete strike a chord. One can only hope his 2016 car accident doesn’t mean he leaves acting behind. Elsewhere, Ella Edward imbues her character with the right about of frustration at being the sister of a news headline, while Michelle Ny, Marlon Williams and Kieran Charnock off lived in portrayals despite their secondary nature to the plot.

Many will be frustrated by the ending, but I found it played out as some sort of dramatic coup. Appropriate for a film that so often plays with narrative gambles. It is a film that will leave people talking, I have no doubt. Hopefully one of those discussions is about why it took Alison Maclean so long to make another film. 18 years is too long to wait.

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Reader Comments (2)

I had no idea she directed Imbruglia’s “Torn” (I love the song, the video, the guy)

Sounds very interesting.

July 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

today is the 50th anniversary of vivien leigh's death - time for a tribute? :)

July 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

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