Friday, October 09, 2015

The Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants is an odd arthouse-type movie filmed in Invercargill, New Zealand, by first-time feature director, Daniel Joseph Borgman. Borgman is a New Zealander, though most of his earlier film work has been done in Denmark, where he has made several short movies.

The great strength of the movie is the outstanding performance by Demos Murphy, an 11-year-old first-time film actor. Murphy brings all the vulnerability and depth of a lonely boy to the screen, a boy on whom the weight of the world (let alone of elephants) seems to have landed. His mother has left (there's no word of a father); his grandmother is bringing him up with a lack of warmth that's hard to credit; his live-in uncle is chronically depressed; he's bullied at school and even his reasonably close friend betrays him, preferring to side with the macho boys in the school.

Even the girl next door, who's a little younger - she's played by Angelina Cottrell with considerable intensity - seems to want to boss him around and hone in on his tenderness. Only her little sister is open and warm towards him.

All of this angst is beautifully filmed in a recognisably semi-rural New Zealand.

That's the plus side of the movie. The negative is that there's no story: bits and pieces float along together, but form no cohesive whole. The mystery element (three small children go missing) is mishandled and left hanging. Such incoherence might convey how Adrian, the boy, feels about his life, but it's an unsatisfying experience for the viewer. Given a child who can act with such depth of feeling as Murphy can, it's a shame to have almost wasted him in a part that seems to go nowhere.

The script cries out for someone to pull all the elements together; unfortunately this hasn't happened, and we're left with a half-story with lots of long reflective pauses that finishes up stopping in the middle of nowhere. Just before the screen suddenly went dark, I was thinking: the writer has painted himself into a corner. And he has. Borgman himself is the writer, and he's loosely based his movie on a bleak Australian story by Sonya Hartnett, a story bleaker than this movie by all accounts (!)

To his credit Borgman provides the kids mostly with dialogue that rings true. However, a number of the lines given to Nicole, the girl from next door, might ring true in the mouth of an adult. In the mouth of a child, they just sound false.


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