Force of Destiny

September 12, 2015
Shahana Goswami & David Wenham in 'Force of Destiny' (2015)
Shahana Goswami & David Wenham in 'Force of Destiny' (2015)

Paul Cox’s Force of Destiny is another film that straddles the twilight zone between life and art, but this is because the story is so closely based on the director’s own battles that it becomes an oblique autobiography.

In 2009 Cox was diagnosed with liver cancer and given only a short time to live. Towards the end of that year he received a liver transplant, and has since turned his experiences into a book, a documentary, and now a feature film. Force of Destiny is a fictionalised account of Cox’s ordeal, in which David Wenham plays Robert, a successful mid-career sculptor struck down by the same illness.

The up-side of the story is that while recovering from surgery, Cox met Rosie Raka, who had also undergone a liver transplant. The two survivors are now partners in life.

This romantic theme finds its way into Force of Destiny, but the woman who provides Robert’s salvation is not another cancer patient, but a young Indian marine biologist named Maya, played by rising Bollywood actress, Shahana Goswarmi.

Maya’s occupation allows Cox to play with various metaphors, while the Indian element takes him into cosmic territory. “Maya” means life force, and Cox gives us a blast of Indian exoticism as an antidote for the morbid fears and fancies of the cancer patient. The story flips, in rather confusing fashion, between Australia and India. We can hardly believe that Robert has gone off visiting Indian temples when he is on stand-by for a liver transplant. Is this a dream sequence? A premonition of the future?

In his typical manner Cox intersperses a narrative presented in a plain, no-frill style, with bursts of surreal Super-8 footage intended to represent scattered thoughts and memories rushing through Robert’s mind. As we go deeper into the story the Indian content becomes more intrusive, and frankly silly, with sitar music and dancing.

The grim realism of Robert’s struggle with cancer sits awkwardly with the B-movie portrayal of the Indian characters. This display of patchiness, ambition and indulgence is very typical of Cox’s style. He is one of Australia’s most talented filmmakers, but has never made a movie that doesn’t veer off into some creative cul-de-sac. It may be that he over-intellectualises his scenarios, or wants to be seen as an artist, not simply a story-teller.

Even the title of this film strikes a false note. It makes one think of a Douglas Sirk melodrama instead of a naturalistic examination of one man’s battle with cancer, punctuated by jarring, arty interludes. Sirk wanted to sweep the viewer along, but Cox takes a more Brechtian approach, asking us to periodically pause and reflect.

The strength of this movie lies with the realistic portrayal of a man dealt a devastating blow by fate, who goes through all the emotional states one might expect. Robert is disbelieving, angry, despairing, and finally hopeful. After tip-toeing along the edge of the abyss, Cox has found a new passion for life. This makes Force of Destiny a surprisingly positive film, even if there is a lot of angst to be negotiated along the way.

The film centres around the performance of David Wenham in the lead role, who has to convey many conflicting feelings while trying to maintain his composure. It’s a difficult task and he’s only partly successful, often falling back on the ‘stunned mullet’ expression. Although Robert is a sculptor he might just as easily be a brick-layer or an accountant, as his creative vocation has little connection with his illness. We spend the film surrounded by artworks (by Trefor Prest), but they act as a backdrop, not an organic part of the story.

Robert has the support of his ex-wife, Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie) and his daughter, Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen), who fuss and care for him, but it is his developing relationship with Maya that gives him a reason to live. He rails against the injustice of being handed a death sentence when he has just met his soul-mate. Maya’s role, as a font of ancient Indian wisdom, is to make him aware that the world is no more than a veil of illusion, and that one must transcend its cares to achieve true spiritual awareness.

Perhaps only a cancer survivor could judge the accuracy of Cox’s portrait of a man stricken by the disease. It feels convincing, even allowing for the subcontinental subplot, which teeters on the brink of self-parody.

Force of Destiny is such a personal film it gives one the awkward feeling of reviewing the director’s life rather than his handiwork. This is inevitable when dealing with a story so closely connected with real life experiences. While Cox would not deny the centrality of those experiences, neither would he want viewers to treat the film as a true confession or a plea for sympathy. For a director who has often been accused of making depressing movies, this is his victory over death.

Force of Destiny
Written & directed by Paul Cox
Starring David Wenham, Shahana Goswami, Jacqueline McKenzie, Hannah Fredericksen, Kim Gyngell, Geneviève Picot, Terry Norris
Australia, rated MA 15+, 109 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12th September, 2015.