Lantana (2001) Written by Andrew Bovell Directed by Ray Lawrence
Ray Lawrence took sixteen years off between his first and second films. His career seems to coincide with the two peaks in international interest in Australian cinema in the last forty years. In the 1980s, there was a sudden spike of interest in the United States around Australian media. Directors like Peter Weir and actors like Mel Gibson became hot commodities. Crocodile Dundee was a pretty massive phenomenon in the States. Even bizarre comedies like Young Einstein starring the comedic actor Yahoo Serious had their moment in the spotlight. Lawrence’s Bliss came out in 1985 and never really swept up Americans, but it was definitely given a high stature in Australia. Jump to 2001, as a new wave of Australian films begins capturing the attention of audiences, and Lawrence gives us the highest-grossing movie in Australian history, Lantana.
Bliss (1985) Written by Ray Lawrence & Peter Carey Directed by Ray Lawrence
In twenty-one years, Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence made three movies with a sixteen-year gap between his first two. His first film, Bliss, caused hundreds to walk out of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and won the 1985 Australian Academy Award. Lawrence was born in London in 1948 and moved to Australia when he was 11. After he graduated from high school, Lawrence attended and subsequently dropped out of university. This lead to his work in advertising in Sydney and then a move back to London producing commercials. When he finally returned to Australia, Lawrence started his own production company that became one of the top producers of commercials in the continent. It was during his time in advertising that Lawrence met author Peter Carey and they became quick friends. This led to a screenwriting partnership that led to two full-length screenplays. Eventually, they decided to adapt Carey’s award-winning novel Bliss for the big screen.
Marnie (1964) Written by Jay Presson Allen Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
All good things must come to an end. Marnie would mark the downturn of Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career. He’d just come off a fantastic streak of films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. That many consecutive movies that immediately became iconic is quite an achievement, so it is a little unfair that critics turned their noses up so hard at what Hitch released for the rest of his career. On the other hand, he set the standard so high that we expect something brilliant. Marnie has all those things you expect in a Hitchcock movie but done so much more clunkily, with a deep strain of misogyny boring through the entire production. In some ways, Marnie is Hitch letting the mask slipping and showing too much of his true self to us.
The Birds (1963) Written by Daphne du Maurier & Evan Hunter Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Birds is unlike any Hitchcock film I have ever seen. Three years after shocking audiences with Psycho, a film that is also slightly off from most of the director’s work but still sharing some psychological traits, we get this straight up man versus nature horror film. The first half is very slow, almost a comedy-drama, and every once in a while, we get a hint that something is off. Then the second half hits, and the film slides into total chaos. What we get is what I see as a reasonably angry film that expresses some of Hitchcock’s misanthropy in horrifying and comedically absurd ways.
It’s tempting to single out 2020 as an exceptionally rough year, but I argue that life for millions of people has been a generational cycle of struggle for as long as anyone can remember. The United States is caught in a cycle of economic recessions that batter people working in the industrial & service industries worse and worse. Writer Jessica Bruder detailed the American subculture of older workers who live in a perpetual state of migration, taking rough menial seasonal labor while living out of RVs and vans. This community first gained prominence in the wake of the 2008 recession, which saw swaths of homeowners losing their homes due to inhumane business practices. Her book details these people’s tragedies and triumphs breaking their backs to make ends meet and keep traveling up the road to the next spot. Most importantly, it highlights how American corporations have made this migrant labor a key component in their business model.
Doctor Zhivago (1965) Written by Robert Bolt Directed by David Lean
Coming off the meteoric success of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean desired to make a film more romantic & relationship-centered, a counter to Lawrence’s epic war themes. However, Hollywood now saw him as a filmmaker of sprawling bombastic movies. Doctor Zhivago, based on the worldwide bestseller by Boris Pasternak. Originally, Omar Sharif signed on with the expectation of playing Pasha, while Lean wanted Peter O’Toole as the lead again. O’Toole opted out, and so Lean asked Sharif to play the lead part. On December 22, 1965, just in time for Christmas, Doctor Zhivago was released in theaters and became one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Written by Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson Directed by David Lean
In the 19th century, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle gave a series of lectures positing the great man theory. This belief is that history is simply the impact of a series of great men who were highly influential and better than the ordinary person. This was attributed to some innate superiority or divine providence. This has become a well-deserved point of contention in modern history discourse as it’s become clear that white men did a very efficient job of suppressing the accounts and perspective of women, black people, and other non-white, LGBTQ+ people that lived alongside them. T.E. Lawrence was definitely seen as a great man, but David Lean’s controversial film about the historical figure explores that the myths and stories did not match the reality.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson Directed by David Lean
Of all David Lean’s films, this remains my absolute favorite and rewatching it many years since the last viewing, I saw so much more than I ever have before. I think The Bridge on the River Kwai actually serves as a perfect allegory for the incoming Biden presidency and the unity message of Liberals towards Leftists and Progressives in America. While the film is set during World War II, we aren’t in the middle of the action. Instead, the narrative has two prominent locations: a Japanese POW camp and the Club Med-like hospital and Allied base of operations in Ceylon. We never see massive battleships or armed soldiers moving en masse across hills and fields. These are people broken by war, yet some are still unable to see the madness in their actions and cling to the procedures.
Oliver Twist (1948) Written by David Lean & Stanley Haynes Directed by David Lean
David Lean’s second attempt at adapting Charles Dickens is even better, in my opinion. This time around, instead of relying on other screenwriters, Lean and Stanley Haynes worked out the script together and managed to keep most of the story’s high points. Lean was audacious enough to add to the story with two critical bits at the beginning and end that work beautifully and are some of the best scenes of the entire film. Even more so than Great Expectations, we find the director leaning into noir-ish Gothic production design and lighting, which leads to an incredibly memorable viewing experience.
Great Expectations (1946) Written by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh Directed by David Lean
The success of Brief Encounter rocketed David Lean into a level of acclaim that would only grow for the remainder of his career. His next projects would be adaptations of two classic Charles Dickens novels, starting with Great Expectations. The idea to adapt the story to the screen came after Lean saw a stage production that abbreviated the text and turned it into a digestible narrative while cutting away subplots. It took a couple of years of drafts, explaining the writing credits until Lean was satisfied with the final product. On Boxing Day (December 26) 1946, Great Expectations premiered in the U.K.