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Fish-Men and Lonely Islands: The Films of Shirley Barrett

The Australian writer-director focuses not only on the loneliness of outsiders, but also on their resilience.
Sucheta Chakraborty
Shirley Barrett's Love Serenade (1996) is showing May 14 - June 13, 2018 in many countries around the world.
Love Serenade
Australian writer-director Shirley Barrett’s latest venture, a screenplay-turned-novel titled Rush Oh!, is about the fascinating and true story of an inter-species bond that grew in the early 1900s between a whaling community in the coastal town of Eden and a pod of killer whales. Every year, the whales returned to help the whalers trap their prey and share in the common loot. In an interview, Barrett describes how she came upon the story one particular rainy day during a beach trip to Eden. She had sought shelter at the local whale museum and had been struck by the sight of a very impressive killer whale skeleton on display just as she had walked in. The museum, she had realized, had been built to showcase what remained of this formidable creature, a killer whale named ‘Old Tom,’ who had been the leader of the pod that had swum into the bay every year. Tom, like the other regulars, could be recognized by his dorsal fin and had frequently been in newspaper reports of the time for his contributions. He had even been given an obituary upon his death.
Shirley Barrett is an artist with a knack for detail. As a child, with the home television strictly out of bounds, she would invent games and embellish them with incredible characters and scenarios to fill the time—a practice that has served her well. Barrett is one of several skilled and versatile women working in her country today who have successfully forayed into a variety of creative mediums. She has worked extensively in television, having written and directed for acclaimed shows like Offspring and A Place to Call Home, and critics have praised her ability to sustain the overarching tone and style of each series, varied as they are. While film may have granted her more creative freedom, ultimately, what has consistently come to the fore across her works is her remarkably original voice—a unique ability to glean humor out of ordinary things, to bring out the awkward in the everyday, and to create stories around what she describes as the small joys and humiliations of domestic life.
Reading about her visit to the Eden Killer Whale Museum, I was reminded of the marlin on the wall of the creepy, washed-up DJ Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov) in Barrett’s delightfully whimsical Caméra d'Or-winning debut feature Love Serenade (1996). Displayed almost like a museum artefact, it dominates the interiors of his home and seems to be the only personal object that ties him to his surroundings. It is used as bait, especially with Dimity Hurley (Miranda Otto) when Sherry, noticing her interest in fish and fishing, casually remarks that he has a very large fish that he could show her—and for a second we wonder if the usage is entirely euphemistic. Turns out he does, and just as in Old Tom’s case, the marlin’s lifeless frame—the remains of the once-mighty creature—becomes a gateway to a new world of secrets and hitherto untold stories. The marlin and its owner, as Dimity increasingly suspects, share a peculiar affinity. Both of the film’s deliberately awkward seduction scenes happen not just for Sherry’s benefit but also in the looming presence of the marlin. At one point, Dimity is even made witness to its curious heaving and thrashing on the wall, indicative of Sherry’s activities in the adjoining room.
Love Serenade’s recurrent use of the fish trope serves many interesting purposes. Apart from imbuing the story with a hint of magic realism, it helps to chart out the behaviours of its principal characters. Sherry, who has left behind a more glamorous career in the big city to settle in the nondescript town of Sunray, reminiscent of Muriel’s Wedding’s Porpoise Spit, is the obvious big fish in a small pond. Moreover, in this barren town where nothing much happens, the only men on offer are the group of rowdy, leering boys who drive past Dimity on the street or the nudist owner of the local Chinese restaurant. Therefore the new arrival—a charismatic and seemingly wronged-in-love radio celebrity with a voice that drizzles like liquefied warm honey—is an assured catch, and Dimity, along with her sister Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith), use every trick up their sleeves to try and reel him in. What is interesting, though, is the constantly changing power dynamics at work here. The fish that swims around the bait and ultimately bites it in the opening credits is as much of a stand-in for Sherry as it is for the sisters themselves. The writer-director has described her leading man as “a kind of composite of every ‘Mr Wrong’,” and the aloof, older and predatory Sherry who is in constant need of ‘loneliness-easing’ is a firm believer that there is plenty more fish in the sea. He is both fish and angler, hunter even while he is being hunted.
Sherry is also the outsider, one whose three divorces hold as much mystery as his diet and physiological oddities. It is what makes him so appealing amidst the boredom of Sunray. In the film’s opening shots, as Sherry casually ambles his way into the town sporting aviators and mouthing lyrics from a Barry White song, he does so straight into the waiting hearts of Sunray’s young girls. Barrett’s island-drama, the bleak and windswept South Solitary (2010), set in 1927, also opens with an outsider making her way to an unknown place, in this case, an island off the southern coast of Australia. However, the two opening sequences could not have been more dissimilar. In stark contrast to Ken Sherry’s cool confidence and optimism is South Solitary’s Meredith Appleton (Miranda Otto), who approaches tentatively, clutching her pet sheep in her arms for comfort, unsure and anxious of what lies ahead. She too must learn to adapt, and the film deals with similar ideas of change, belonging, loneliness and the need for human contact. But while the younger and friskier Love Serenade is more accepting and indulgent towards its new entrant, showering him with warm country hospitality in the form of endless chicken casseroles, in the later film Meredith finds herself trapped in a physical and social terrain that is as unforgiving as it is hostile. These are, of course, two separate films with vastly diverging plot lines, but the differences in the two characters’ reception, treatment, and experiences are not just a matter of time, place, and circumstance. They have, one suspects, as much to do with their gender.
Barrett’s very first film, a short titled Cherith (1988), made while she was still at film school, was about the teenage daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who is distraught at being the only one in the group who cannot speak in tongues. Walk the Talk (2000), made years later, wove its story around a group of washouts drifting on the fringes of the entertainment industry and desperate for a crack at getting to the top. The loneliness of those who could not manage to get in is a recurrent theme in Barrett’s films, but so is that of their resilience and the willingness to make the most of what they have.
“I have always loved stories about small groups of isolated people and set by the sea,” Barrett once said, and it is a statement that, due to the wealth of details she pours into them, applies to much of her work. Her films resonate with an acute feeling of place, character, and immediacy, conveying almost a lived-in sense of the lives these characters lead, the lonely spaces they inhabit, and the days they occupy with activity, chatter, and ennui. Their charm lies in the inclusion of seemingly-unimportant details like the mundane lunches that the sisters share every day on the stone bench by the train tracks in Love Serenade or the plump pigeons that Meredith attempts to send to the mainland with news from the island in South Solitary. It is the guilelessness of her narration, along with the refreshing candor of the stories she chooses to tell and their quick bursts of humor and quirk that make Barrett’s cinematic work so rich and full of promise.


Shirley BarrettNow Showing
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