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Jindabyne

The same organic characterizations that marked Lawrence's acclaimed 2001 film "Lantana" will attract fans of strong adult drama, and the film is boosted by a new preoccupation with landscape that leads to haunting visuals reminiscent of Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock."

A pivotal moral dilemma with universal resonance, along with spiky performances from Hollywood imports Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne in the lead roles, should widen the appeal of this powerful Australian production beyond the local market. The film was well-received in Cannes and is included in the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.

"Jindabyne" relocates Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" to the high bush country of Australia's Snowy Mountains in a rather radical adaptation by scriptwriter Beatrix Christian. The Carver narrative, also featured as a piece in the mosaic of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," has been expanded to embrace a raft of new characters, a racial subtext and a mystical element tied to the heritage of the eponymous town and surrounds.

Lawrence tautens the mood immediately with an opening sequence involving a cat-and-mouse car chase on a lonely back road. But this is no murder mystery; we know from the outset that it is a local tradesman (Chris Haywood) who is responsible for killing the 19-year-old Aboriginal girl (Tatea Reilly) whose near-naked body will wind up floating face down in the river.

The drama comes from the ripple effect of a single decision made by four men -- a practical choice that only becomes a question of morals when their actions are exposed to the fierce glare of a community's outrage.

On a much-anticipated weekend fishing trip, Stewart (Byrne), the owner of a local gas station, and his pals Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy "the Kid" (Simon Stone) stumble upon the murdered girl, but because the sun is shining, the fish are biting and it's a long scramble back to civilization, they put off reporting the find. They tether the girl's ankle to a tree with a length of fishing line and carry on with another day's fishing.

Upon their return, Stewart's wife, Claire (Linney), recoils in horror at the callousness of the act and is forced to sugarcoat the story for the benefit of their young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss) by telling him that his father wrapped the girl in a sleeping bag to keep her warm. The incident puts pressure on imperfectly mended fractures in the couple's marriage -- there are oblique references to Claire suffering an 18-month bout of severe postnatal depression -- and the gap in understanding between the genders is echoed in the other men's relationships with their wives and girlfriends.

Blame and guilt splinter the community, with the tension compounded by the fact that the victim was Aboriginal, as is Rocco's girlfriend, Carmel (Leah Purcell).

Lawrence expertly layers on small scenes of disquiet, hinting at emotions buried deep beneath the surface. Such is the legitimacy of the interplay between the characters that when tempers flare or composure short-circuits -- as in an itchy confrontation in a restaurant between Claire and her mother-in-law (Betty Lucas) -- the drama feels uncomfortably close.

Linney's remarkable talent for folding strength and vulnerability into a single character makes Claire hugely sympathetic, even as she mulishly blunders about trying to make things right with the family of the dead girl. And Deborra-Lee Furness is outstanding in a supporting role as a matriarch bringing up the morbid child (Eva Lazzaro) of her dead daughter.

The socio-political argument eventually begins to weigh down the film, as does the soundtrack's over-reliance on the wordless vocals of Aussie troubadour Paul Kelly. Mood aplenty is conjured up by the watchful nature of the untamed terrain and far horizons, handsomely photographed by longtime Lawrence collaborator David Williamson, and by the director's measured pacing.

Director: Ray Lawrence
Screenwriter: Beatrix Christian
Based on the short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" by: Raymond Carver
Producer: Catherine Jarman
Executive producers: Philippa Bateman, Garry Charny
Director of photography: David Williamson
Production designer: Margot Wilson
Music: Paul Kelly, Dan Luscombe, Soteria Bell
Costume designers: Margot Wilson
Editor: Karl Sodersten
Cast:
 Claire: Laura Linney
 Stewart: Gabriel Byrne
 Jude: Deborra-lee Furness
 Carl: John Howard
 Carmel: Leah Purcell
 Rocco: Stelios Yiakmis
 Elissa: Alice Garner
 Billy: Simon Stone
 Vanessa: Betty Lucas
 Gregory: Chris Haywood
 Caylin-Calandria: Eva Lazzaro
 Tom: Sean Rees-Wemyss
 Susan: Tatea Reilly
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