Film-makers like it when critics use the word “restrained” to describe their work because it implies an intellectual rigour mostly absent in the excessive spectacles of mainstream cinema. Audiences who are looking for something more substantial like it too, for the same reasons. So for what it’s worth, let me say this right off the bat: director Ben Lawrence’s Sydney-set drama Hearts and Bones, which revolves around the relationship between a war photographer and a South Sudanese refugee, is certainly restrained.
It is a human-oriented drama that builds a thoughtful and contemplative space, empathising with characters grappling with difficult circumstances outside the common experience. It is also the kind of drama you sometimes want to grab and shake to life. Get the lens a little dirty; knock the camera around a bit; bring a sense of urgency to the edit; get the script (by Lawrence and Beatrix Christian) to draw bold conclusions to the ethical questions it raises rather than pussyfoot around with vague ruminative responses.
One thing you never want to mess with is the performances. The protagonist is played by Hugo Weaving, an actor who expresses pathos as if it were a weight constantly pulling him down. The most intense moments in Weaving’s performances, in this film and more generally speaking, tend to occur when he feigns losing control; when the performer’s trademark stoicism gives away to a volcanic inner force.
Weaving plays Dan Fisher, a famous photographer who suffers panic attacks in increasing frequency. This is partly to do with angst concerning his pregnant partner Josie – played by an affecting Hayley McElhinney, whose performance balances assurance with tenderness. The nature of Dan’s trepidation towards their impending baby is best left for the film to disclose. Mostly, however, his PTSD-like panic attacks connect to terrible things he has seen during wartime, one of which we witness in the film’s opening moments.
That moment, which involves Dan prioritising the duties of being a photographer over intervening in a dangerous situation and potentially saving a life, casts a pall that hangs over the rest of the film. Yet it remains unexplored: just left there, hanging, as a way to make the point that the protagonist Has Seen Things. By the end of it we have no idea whether Dan subscribes to the bogus, outdated idea that a professional photographer (or documentarian) should never interact with the environment around them, but only capture it. That used to be a badge of honour certain photographers wore, as if capturing suffering were a more noble pursuit than helping another human in front of them.
Ahead of an upcoming exhibition, Dan is approached by a South Sudanese cab driver, Sebastian (Andrew Luri), who arrives on his door with a special request: that Dan photograph an African community choir he belongs to. My first thought was that this would lead to the broken Dan becoming whole again by belting out a few uplifting songs with the choristers. But Sebastian has an ulterior motive: he doesn’t want Dan to exhibit photographs of a massacre at the village where he lived 15 years ago. He has his own reasons for this, which are explored over the course of the running time and are points of tension between the two characters.
Most of the drama involves dealing with deep-seated emotional wounds and growing tensions between the two men. Newcomer Andrew Luri is terrific opposite Weaving, more than holding his own against the seasoned veteran. Luri plays Sebastian as a determined but deeply conflicted man whose solutions often exacerbate his problems. Every once in a while he responds to a stressful situation with violence, creating a sense of untrustworthiness that agitates an otherwise pleasant demeanour. At times you want to give him a hug; at times you want to stay well clear of him.
The tone, temperament and pacing of Hearts and Bones is certainly consistent, though visually there is nothing particularly rich or cinematic about it. Lawrence and his cinematographer Hugh Miller conjured a more interesting, and much moodier look in the director’s previous film, Ghosthunter, an atmospheric documentary investigating a Sydney security guard who claims to chase spirits in his spare time.
Ghosthunter similarly explores themes of long-standing trauma, and the inability for any of us to escape our past. Both of Lawrence’s films ruminate on one of the greatest lines uttered so far in 21st century cinema, spoken by, of all people, the protagonist of the 2009 family film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: “You can’t run away from your own feet.”
It took deep thought to come up with a line like that, and terrific efficiency to distill such profound sentiments into so few words. Hearts and Bones makes profound statements also but is not a work of narrative economy, that’s for sure. Dramatically, it has a vague, lingering quality, at times meditative (another critic-deployed word film-makers tend to like) and sometimes a little inert. On the plus side, the performances are very strong and have plenty of space to breathe. The tone is measured, contemplative and, yes, restrained.
• Hearts and Bones is out now through iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Sony PlayStation, Telstra and Fetch TV, and will be available on DVD on 3 June