The One Eyed Girl

May 2, 2015
Tilda Cobham-Hervey in 'One Eyed Girl' (2014)
Tilda Cobham-Hervey in 'One Eyed Girl' (2014)

It’s becoming tautologous to say “a disappointing Australian film.” While I never expect a masterpiece, it would be nice to find a local movie that manages to cover more than a narrow slice of the emotional spectrum. The usual bill of fare ranges from angst to misery and back again. A disproportionate number of new Australian films seem to be made by first-time directors. Some of them will be lucky to make a second.

Nick Matthews will probably get another chance, but his debut feature, One Eyed Girl, is subject to the same one-dimensionality that has become a blight on the local film industry. There seems to be no understanding that one can make audiences laugh in the midst of a drama or even a horror film. The momentary release from tension only heightens the mood when the dangerous stuff returns.

Think of the Coen brothers, who can make a joke from scenes of the most extreme violence. Think of Clint Eastwood, a master at creating tragically flawed heroes.

Think of Alfred Hitchcock. Need I say more?

One Eyed Girl introduces us to Travis (Mark Leonard Winter) a young doctor working in a mental institution who is heading for a breakdown. He is drinking and taking pills, while struggling to cope with the patients. The final straw is an inappropriate relationship with a former patient (Katy Cheel) who commits suicide. This sends Travis spiralling into depression.

Suspended from his job he attends a meeting of an encounter group, after being given a leaflet on the train by a young woman (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). The group is led by an Iraq veteran named Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand), who appears on a video. Travis is unimpressed, but back in his flat he rings the group for help after he has swallowed a bottle of pills. He is rescued and taken to a place in the country, where Father Jay has his headquarters.

The farm turns out to be part boot camp, part hippy commune. It is a cult that preaches love, but demands discipline and obedience from its followers. Travis rebels at first but gradually agrees to allow Jay to help ‘heal his soul’. It is no surprise that things are not as cosy as they appear, with small doubts soon cascading into full-scale catastrophe.

The chief problem with this film is a failure of narrative. None of the characters are developed enough to allow us to see them as they are meant to be seen. Jay is supposed to be a charismatic guru but one never feels an iota of personal magnetism. The love interest between Travis and the young woman, Grace, is handled in a perfunctory manner. The activities of the group are outlined in the sketchiest fashion. All the elements of a story are present but nothing is fleshed out.

Travis spends much of the film wandering around with his mouth open and his eyebrows raised, in a state of constant alarm. After a while this merely resembles an impersonation of a goldfish.

When one compares this film to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman played the cult leader, and Joaquin Phoenix the disturbed disciple, its shortcomings are laid bare. In place of Hoffman’s dazzling oratory, Father Jay’s lines seem to be lifted from a cheap self-help manual. Phoenix’s slow conversion was psychologically persuasive, but Travis never really becomes part of the group before he starts questioning it.

Grace, the “one eyed girl” of the title, is a woefully underdone character. Aside from a brief mention of her parents, it’s hard to know why she is mixed up in Jay’s mumbo jumbo. Since she seems to have two eyes, even the title is confusing. “In the country of the blind, the one eyed girl is Queen,” she pronounces enigmatically. Presumably this means she is the only member of the group to retain a shred of independent thought, but she plays the part of a True Believer.

One Eyed Girl is a watchable film, but utterly uninvolving. The dialogue is pedestrian and the personalities colourless. The film is all about Travis, but he is such a shallow, unsympathetic character it’s hard to feel concerned about anything he endures. Travis is a study in morbid self-pity, and it’s virtually impossible to make a successful movie around a black hole. Before his soul could be healed it would need to be discovered.

The One Eyed Girl
Directed by Nick Matthews
Written by Craig Behenna & Nick Matthews
Starring Mark Leonard Winter, Steve Le Marquand, Craig Behenna, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Matt Crook
Australia, rated MA 15+, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd May, 2015.