Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remastering the Film: Bruce Beresford

Even if, for so much of the time, fellow English speakers around the world have been, to adapt Shaw's adage, various people "divided by a common language," it has been fortunate for an American like myself that films in English do not originate exclusively from Hollywood. Because of this, I think it is high time to declare that Bruce Beresford is the best filmmaker in the English-speaking world. He has made five great films and at least three others that are otherwise extraordinary - a fact that few other filmmakers called "great" can claim. He is the greatest director to emerge from the Australian naissance of the 1970s, which included such other notable directors as Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi. And he is also the best of a rare breed of itinerant filmmakers who has managed to make superb films in several countries. (1)

After the uproarious Don's Party (1976) introduced him to international audiences, he made his first great film, Breaker Morant (1980). It helped establish Australia as the source of extraordinary films that is has enjoyed, if not exactly earned, ever since. After two successful but minor films, The Club (1980) and Puberty Blues (1981), Beresford answered the inevitable call of Hollywood. So many great filmmakers who do so seem to come apart and produce work that is markedly inferior to their work in their home countries. (2) Beresford, however, is one of the few exceptions to this rule. On his arrival in America, he eventually took on a project that had been rejected by several other directors, and made one of the greatest American films of the '80s, Tender Mercies (1983). “I wanted to do it,” Beresford said. “It is a fascinating story about people who go to church on Sunday and don’t go round killing each other. Most films about American small towns in the South show a brutal, murderous America that never rang true to me.”

Thanks to its success, Beresford embarked on the ambitious King David (1985), which is at least far better than anyone expected. The casting of Richard Gere is questionable, if understandable. Beresford was beginning to experience the negative side of international film production, in which so much of a director's time is occupied in pre-production haggling over this or that minor detail that can make or break a deal.

His return to Australia came as no surprise, to make the excellent The Fringe Dwellers (1986), about aboriginals living between the two worlds of their native life and modern Australian society. Three years later, back in the U.S., Beresford directed the film of Alfred Uhry's play, Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and did such a splendid job (even getting Dan Ackroyd to act) that the film won the Best Picture Academy Award. He followed this success with two of the most extraordinary films of the '90s, Mister Johnson (1990) and Black Robe (1991). (3) The first, based on the novel by Joyce Cary, addressed the inept and ultimately tragic attempts of a Nigerian clerk to be accepted by his English colonial bosses. The second is set in 17th-century French Canada and follows a Catholic priest's efforts to bring Christianity to the native tribes. These films were sufficiently entertaining (despite their downbeat endings) to earn them sufficient commercial attention.

But Beresford would not make anoher film as good as Black Robe, despite his success with actors in much subsequent work, including Rich in Love (1993), Last Dance (1996). His work became much more commercial and much less interesting. In 2007, he published a memoir, Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants To Do This...True Stories From A Life In The Screen Trade, derived from diaries he kept throughout his career.

The simple fact that a filmmaker as great as Beresford has to waste so much of his precious time (he is now 69) trying to convince producers and movie stars to allow him to work demonstrates, once again, how film is being run by people who would not know a good film if it jumped up and bit them in the neck.

(1) Jean-Jacques Annaud is another such migrant filmmaker, having made Black and White in Color (1976) in his native France, and films like Quest for Fire (1981), The Lover (1992), and Seven Years in Tibet (1997) in international productions.
(2) i.e., Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Max Ophüls, Antonioni, Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Kadar, Bill Forsythe, Jerzy Skolimowski, Louis Malle, Jan Troell, Lina Wertmüller, Lasse Hallström, the list is depressingly long...
(3) When I watched Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), my admiration for Black Robe, which was already considerable, grew deeper and greater. Malick even used the same actor, August Schellenberg, who is half Mohawk, to play Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.

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