Less than a week into the Melbourne International Film Festival, after yours truly had sat through over 20 feature film screenings in less than five days and absorbed everything from Czechoslovakian psychoanalytic comedy to fattened French period epics, a reel bolt out of the blue arrived: proof that a David Williamson play can still provide the foundation for a great Australian film and that a new great Australian film, Face to Face (film 22), is indeed upon us.

Williamson’s one room character ensemble script on which the film was based was trimmed and tidied by adapter/director Michael Rymer, who recruited a talented local cast to chew through it on a 12 day shoot with a percolated coffee and a bring-your-own-sandwiches budget.

The result is a modest stroke of heartfelt moral-multifaceted genius which takes what initially appears to be a no-brainer circumstance and flips it into a complex study of dueling origins, motivations and consequences.

An off-the-rails recently fired ex-employee of a scaffolding company violently attacks two of his colleagues, one of them his boss, sending both to hospital, then has the gall to plead for his job back. Only a fool would ask him to return to the business, right?

In the hope that court action can be avoided, a reconciliation session between company employees takes place. Matthew Newton is the man steering discussions; Luke Ford plays the slow-witted perpetrator of the crimes and Vince Colosimo spits and splutters as the understandably miffed employer; Sigfrid Thornton his wife. Four of the actors in film’s small cast were in the original Underbelly TV series. Newton was in the second.

This time around they don’t play a bunch of crooks and layabouts. First impressions in Face to Face suggest these characters may be the same kind of cardboard cutout simpletons David Williamson trundled out in his recent, and much maligned play Don Parties On, but the more these characters open their mouths the more they transcend our expectations of who we think they are, to the point at which the viewer is likely to feel like a right royal bastard for being so judgmental.

A long stream of dialogue — essentially Face to Face is one gigantic sprawling conversation — uses the aforementioned violent workplace incidents to springboard heated discussions between the group present, spanning industrial relations, workplace bullying, domestic violence, marital and racial issues, child abuse, mental illness and more, with everybody – from the quiet accountant to the muscular Muslim — seizing the proverbial mic to vent their spleen.

The film’s crowning beauty is its fluidity. The conversations, loaded with humorous tilts, entwines back-stories, flashbacks and character motivations until the audience’s initial moral judgements are almost completely upturned.

It takes a little suspension of disbelief to accept Newton as the wise mediator – even without taking into consideration his off-screen antics – given this is the kind of role ordinarily cast to an older, sager performer with more gravitas, but son-of-Moonface carries the part with a calm, measured energy and everybody else follows suit.

The dramatic moments resonant, from believable ruminations to occasional moments of pathos and power. Some of the segues between discussion points could be smoother – you can smell whiffs of Williamson’s disjointed histrionics — but given the breadth of issues nebulously loosely linked – unlike, say, the court case that binds the equally dialogue extensive 12 Angry Men – some stop/start was inevitable.

Luke Ford, destined to be the next major local talent whisked over to LA on a one-way ticket, was cast after Rymer watched his unforgettable performance as a heavily autistic youth in The Black Balloon. His superb performance is the human highlight of Face to Face, absolutely convincing as a slow-witted kid with a bad temper, a rough upbringing and a decent heart.

At a Q and A after the film’s premiere screening in Melbourne, Rymer explained that due to time constraints the actors chewed through approximately 15 pages of dialogue a day with no rehearsal. The energy and naturalness projected in the final cut suggests the cast and crew embraced their obstacles, found a great rhythm and tempo, and through talent, energy and perhaps a stroke of collaborative fortune they nailed it. Big time.

Set to be released in early September in Australia, Face to Face arrives at an interesting time for David Williamson, whose career cred has been whacked with the critic stick recently for the aforementioned Don Parties On, which introduced stereotypes but never the tools with which to dismantle them. Going by this film and Balibo, which Williams adapted for the screen, cinema might just be the preferred medium for the aging playwright to strut his stuff.

Face to Face will be released in Australian cinemas nationwide in September.

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