Director Craig Monahan first came to my attention in the late 1990s with 'The Interview'. Winning Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and six other gongs at the 1998 AFI Awards, 'The Interview' was a powerful two-hander starring Hugo Weaving and Tony Martin. It is well worth looking up if you haven't seen it.
With only one directing credit since that time, also starring Weaving, Monahan clearly chooses his projects carefully. As co-writer and producer as well as director, he has invested a lot of himself in 'Healing', and created a legacy as rich as the real-life rehabilitation program this film depicts.
Hugo Weaving headlines again for Monahan in 'Healing'. He plays Matt Perry, a guard at a low security prison farm who is struggling to deal with the loss of his only child to cancer. The three inmates at the centre of the plot, played by Don Hany, Xavier Samuel and Mark Leonard Winter, have their own healing to do. All three have taken a human life while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. All three face challenges in their family relationships and in surviving prison life.
It is not only the human leads who are in need of healing. The local wildlife sanctuary is unable to cope with the number of injured birds of prey needing to be nursed back to health.. Perry persuades his boss to let him establish aviaries at the prison camp, and the three central inmates are placed in charge, led by tough nut Viktor Khadem (Hany).
It is the interplay of birds and humans that makes 'Healing' such entrancing viewing, particularly Viktor's relationship with Yasmine, a magnificent wedge-tailed eagle. Equally moving is the relationship between Viktor's protege Paul (Samuel) and the first bird he bonds with. The expressiveness both birds appear to convey is remarkable. Whether it's by nature, by training or by the magic of the camera and the editing suite, they are the avian equivalents of Red Dog.
The quality of the writing is reflected in the quality of the cast Monahan has assembled, and the human acting in the film is impeccable. Tapping into the middle eastern half of his heritage, Hany is completely convincing playing the complex character of Viktor on whom the film stands or falls. Anthony Hayes ('Animal Kingdom', 'The Boys') plays the villain of the piece with the fine balance of menace and restraint needed to avoid caricature. Justine Clark, Jane Menelaus, Tony Martin and Robert Taylor provide strong support in minor roles: there is not a false acting note in sight.
Source: Pinnacle Films
A standout for me was Mark Leonard Winter's performance as Shane, a slightly unhinged misfit, naive and vulnerable at one moment and a recalcitrant whiner the next. There are echoes of Casey Affleck in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford the Coward'. Again, director and actor have combined to keep real what could easily have been overacted . We'll see more of Leonard Winter in future I'm sure. Xavier Samuel ('Adore', 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse') gives a pared-back performance as the introverted, self-condemning Paul, Shane's cellmate.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I wept silently for much of this film. As the house lights came up I could see that I was not alone. While the blokes were applauding, every woman in the preview audience was either blowing her nose or dabbing gently at her eyes, at the same time saying, 'Wow!'
I was moved by the beauty of Andrew Lesnie's cinematography ('The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, 'The Hobbit'). Whether it was the jaw-dropping first flight scene, the jarring contrast of Melbourne traffic with the rural prison, or lyrical scenes of the two old acting cronies, Weaving and Martin, fishing together in a remote lake, surrounded by low-lying cloud, Lesnie took familiar Australian landscapes and turned them into a series of other-worldly moments. 'Healing' is worth seeing for the photography alone.
I wept with the prisoners as they let go of the birds that had become their emotional lifelines. I felt their losses as we learnt about their fractured family relationships. And I wept with joy and quite a bit of envy at the good fortune of actors Hany and Menelaus in the final sequence. We see them handle and fly a mighty eagle in Healesville Sanctuary's flight arena, the origins of which are part of the storyline.
A minor quibble for me was the number of fades to black at the back end of the film. They interrupted the momentum of the story ever so slightly, breaking the spell the film had cast for its first 90 minutes. Arguably there was an over-insistence on the 'healing' theme. There were more subplots to be resolved than could be achieved without resorting to artifice, including some we'd not seen enough of to care about.
Whether or not I cared that every end was tied off, Monahan certainly did. It is his quest for purity and for perfection, the depth of his own emotional investment in his subject matter and characters, that makes the film such a fine achievement. Don't miss it.