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Watch my interview with writer / director Ben Young here.
**** (out of five)
Six weeks ago the Australian film Berlin Syndrome gave us a pretty genre-standard version of the “girl in captivity” thriller. Now, Hounds of Love offers its own variation, but one with depth, complexity, emotional resonance and something to say. It is far superior.
Berlin Syndrome, like most similar films, focused on a young attractive woman held captive – for various reasons but mainly sexual ones – by a single, troubled (obviously) male. Hounds of Love gives us a young attractive female – indeed, a teenage schoolgirl – kidnapped and held as a sexual captive by a couple. And – here’s the rub – it is the woman within that couple who is the protagonist of the story. While her older, male partner runs the show, she is nonetheless complicit, and asking us to sympathise with her as a lead character is a delicate dance indeed. With awe-inspiring assurance, debut feature writer/director Ben Young and actor Emma Booth pull it off.
Booth is astonishingly good as thirtysomething Evelyn, whose relationship with John (they’re both called “White” in the credits, so it can be assumed they’re married) is as toxic as it gets. Together they have kidnapped, sexually tortured and killed at least one schoolgirl; the film focuses on their abduction of Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings, last seen in Pork Pie in a significantly brighter role). It is Perth, Western Australia, in 1987, in December, and it is hot.
The heat pervades the film, adding to its dread and the specificity of its milieu. Late 80’s Perth is brilliantly evoked in all its isolation, casualness, and suburbanity. The Whites are as mundane and banal as their car and their street, but, like the palm trees and brilliant blue skies surrounding them, they are not unattractive; if they weren’t so fucked up they could probably make good swingers. But… they’re really fucked up.
John is the monster, and we never get to know him too deeply; he is not the point. Evelyn’s dependence on him, her need for his approval – masquerading as “love” – is the point. We get many glancing glimpses into her life before John – including having two children – that give us enough of a complex picture without ever tipping over into pseudo-Freud, pseudo-Jung or pseudo-domestic-abuse community service announcement. The script paints in enough, and (Perth-born) Booth exquisitely fills in the rest. Did I say she’s astonishing? She’s astonishing. May awards be heaped upon her.
Cummings is also always believable and commanding as Vicki. Lord knows what it must be like to play such roles, tied to beds, relentlessly abused, covered in bruises, frequently near-naked and more frequently in tears or screaming. I imagine you do it once, as a demented acting rite of passage, and never again. Then you wait for a role like Evelyn, which unfortunately comes along as often as that darned blue moon. As John, Stephen Curry’s performance is appropriately cold, manipulative and creepy, but doesn’t equate to the revelatory castings of predecessors Nicholas Hope in Bad Boy Bubby (1993), David Wenham in The Boys (1998) and Daniel Henshall in Snowtown (2011). He’s menacing, but your throat doesn’t tighten at his mere presence.
As Justin Kurzel did with Snowtown, Young has taken a tired genre and given it enormous life by applying intelligence, depth of character and just a damned fine script. Hounds of Love is not as “everything” as Snowtown – not as disturbing, not as bloody, not as brilliant – but it is another inspired and noble entry in Australian cinema’s rich ledger of suburban nightmares. In films like these, the villains wear thongs, and people get hurt while the sun brilliantly shines.