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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.

hounds-of-love-cinema-australia-1John 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.

Photo by Jean-Paul Horré

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.

Berlin Syndrome

BS_Poster*** (out of five)

Opens April 20th in Australia

Movies where disturbed men imprison women actually began on the A List, with 1965’s The Collector, directed by William Wyler from John Fowles’ novel. Starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, it was nominated for three Oscars. Since then, the idiosyncratic sub-genre – call it the “Female Captive Movie”, perhaps – has taken a stroll into more exploitative territory, through such diverse fare as Boxing Helena (1993), Black Snake Moan (2006) and Captivity (2007), the last one being a definite B Picture. (Last year’s excellent Room cannot be considered part of this sub-genre; it doesn’t focus on the captive/captor relationship, nor does it follow many of the genre’s primary tropes).

Australian director Cate Shortland gives the subject the A List treatment with Berlin Syndrome, and in doing so highlights its limitations. Impeccably directed, shot and acted, there’s no denying that the script is just another take on an unhinged man who kidnaps an attractive woman and holds her captive; it is tense and suspenseful but really has nothing new to say.

As a thriller, though, it’s great fun. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a solo tourist in Berlin. She gets picked up on the street by Andi (Max Riemelt) and, after a promising and very sexy start, things go very, very wrong. There’s not much else to say about the plot – if you know the genre, you know the story. But the execution is above average for the material. Palmer is terrific; she paints Clare in more colours than the script would seemingly allow. From the moment we meet her, we suspect Clare has more going on beneath the surface than most poor backpackers taken hostage in Europe; it feels like she’s trying to escape some sadness or tragedy, though, if so, it’s never made explicit. Once a captive, Palmer is vividly proficient at all the stages of Clare’s terror, desolation and resolve, but the actress brings even more than that, creating a physicality of fear that brings to mind Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – and that’s high praise indeed. Riemelt is a strong presence too, although his character’s mental imbalance calls for him to present as dispassionate and immoveable, which limits his performance.


Shortland uses the camera well, creating some beautiful images, but she continually falls back on her favourite trick, which is to fall into a dreamy, slow-motion montage with over-reliance on an increasingly intrusive soundtrack by Bryony Marks. If you’ve seen Shortland’s debut feature, Somersault (2004), you’ll know the technique; it’s ill-used here, interrupting and slowing down the narrative and contributing to its significantly overlong running time of 116 minutes. In trying to elevate her lurid material, Shortland ignores one of its basic demands: she drops the tension. The result is an entirely watchable movie with some excellent elements, but which is an uncomfortable fit, a square peg straining to squeeze into a round hole.