Monday, September 17, 2007

Tom White

Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos, Australia, 2004)
My first encounter with the name Alkinos Tsilimidos was in 2004 when I saw Tom White. I had unfortunately missed the theatrical release, but caught it later at an AFI screening. This was the year that Somersault and Tom White were the only films in serious contention for AFI awards. Somersault walked away with fifteen and Tom White none. While the cinematography in Somersault was nice, Toby Oliver's cinematography in Tom White was considerably better, and on every other account that I can think of, Tom White was a vastly superior film (1).

Daniel Keene's writing collaborations with Tsilimidos produce compelling stories that cry out in a way that we are able to appreciate the humanity of those around us that we normally give no thought to. With Everynight... Everynight the protagonist is a criminal, with Em 4 Jay they are junkies, and in Tom White it is the homeless. Tsilimidos is a master of inspired casting and hit gold with Colin Friels' gut-wrenching performance as the title character. Tom White's descent from comfortable suburban middle-class to homelessness via a crisis of identity and a mental health breakdown is captured with a feeling of "that could be me". And it could. That's what makes this film so important.

I've read complaints about the film: "the stories are too episodic", "there's not enough the wife's story", "the ending is too ambiguous" and so on. These miss the point. This is Tom's story. This is life as he sees it. The episodic nature is a reflection of the volatility in his life, and of his lack of ability to commit to a given situation: he moves on when emotionally it's too much to handle. The narrative follows a true sense of reality rather than what we as a comfortable audience may wish to see. The glimpses of Tom's family are mere reference points to compare Tom's life, a sort of before and after, in much the same way that the glimpses of Em's sister Janey in Em 4 Jay enabled us to see how far she had descended into addiction.

Tsilimidos' films may be viewed as gritty social realism, but there is a stylised aesthetic he uses that differentiates him from film-makers like say, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh or the Dardenne brothers. Melbourne is used as a unique and clearly recognisable backdrop without resorting to stereotypical postcard shots (like The Jammed did, for example). While the characters and their situations may be bleak, the visuals combine beautifully with the music to create an uplifting type of visual poetry. Paul Kelly's music is a common element in his films
(2), and there's something about Kelly's mournful laments of the everyman that stir up emotions without the film becoming overtly manipulative.

The blend of characters keeps the film interesting and for me recalls a very different film, David Lynch's The Straight Story, in which the protagonist meets one character, engages in some curious but understated dialogue before moving on and meeting yet another character. While Friels is centre-stage for most of the film, the impressive cast is considerably larger than other Tsilimidos films and includes Rachel Blake, Loene Carmen, David Field, Bill Hunter (in perhaps one of his finest roles), Dan Spielman and Jarryd Jinks.

A couple of interesting details regarding Tom's job: Alkinos Tsilimidos started studying as an architect after high school but changed courses after a couple of years
(3). Laura Gordon and Nick Barkla, the title characters in Em 4 Jay, both have small roles in Tom White. In an early scene, Gordon can be seen approaching Tom's desk as he is retrieving some pencils he has dropped while Barkla plays the architect that Tom belts with some architectural plans at 'Clearwater Springs'.

Permeating the film is Tom's self-questioning in his search for identity: "Who am I?", "am I the man that was over there a minute ago?" and "this face is me". I found this heart-achingly rendered by Friels and the dialogue was effective, believable and at times funny. Anyone who has experienced pain in life should be able to relate to Tom's anguish. It reminds me of personal crises of my own, such as the breakdown of my marriage many years ago. I found it particularly traumatic at the time, and I have strong recollections of staring at myself in the mirror and not fully recognising the person I was seeing. The film has an uncanny ability to tap into the concerns, indeed the very real and darkest fears of real everyday people. It brought tears to my eyes more than once.

I found the ending particularly moving, plausible and uplifting not just in spite of its ambiguity, but also because of it. We see Tom still haggard with long hair but neat, clean, with trimmed beard and apparently in a safe place. Will he reconcile with his wife? Will he receive treatment for his mental state? We'll never know, but like reality, there's no "and they lived happily ever after" ending. As we fade to black, I once again find myself sitting quietly in my seat, moved and ruminating about the experience. I love this type of cinema and I hope Alkinos Tsilimidos keeps making honest and touching films like this.

(1) Tom White did receive considerable accolades: At the Film Critics Circle awards, Daniel Keene won for best original screenplay, Colin Friels won for best actor, Dan Spielman won for best supporting actor and Ken Sallows won for best editing. Toby Oliver won both the Golden Tripod and the NSW awards for best cinematography and Friels also won the IF award for best actor.
(2) Em 4 Jay features the music of The Black Keys, though Jay (Nick Barkla) sings a couple of lines of a Paul Kelly song, from memory it was Before Too Long.
(3) Alkinos left university to care for a dying friend and classmate, who he acknowledges in the final credits of his first film, Everynight... Everynight. Maybe Tom's role is semi-autobiographical, as I've read an interview where Tsilimidos considers Tom's predicament something he could find himself in.

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