Only once in her life was Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) reduced to a state of humility. It was many years ago, after her beachside summer home in Sydney was destroyed by a hurricane. She emerged from the storm cellar and took in the devastation, not with sadness or panic but with a profound sense of peace and acceptance. Above her was a large circular patch of clear sky – the eye of the storm. She walked barefoot along the shoreline, relishing the feeling of the sand between her toes before wading knee-deep into the waves. Alone in that central calm, she could clearly make out the heavy, gray storm clouds off in the distance. Much like a hurricane, she had always been a force to be reckoned with, keeping herself emotionally insulated while exerting her devastating power over her staff and her family. She remains so now, even though she’s in her eighties and at death’s door.
Adapted from Patrick White’s novel, The Eye of the Storm is an extremely difficult film to process. It’s not so much in the plotting or the editing, even though there are moments when Mrs. Hunter’s world fragments itself into reality, memory, and hallucination, her mental state in ongoing stages of decay; it’s more in the character development, which is, to say the very least, complicated. Despite their actions, which on their own are easy enough to understand, the characters carrying them out are so emotionally multifaceted that at no point can we feel any one way about them. They’re like intricate puzzles, and it’s up to us to piece them together and form a single picture. That’s assuming we’re given all the pieces, which may not be the case. In that sense, perhaps the film is intended to mirror reality, in which some people simply cannot be defined.
The film is, above all, a brutal yet engaging examination of family dynamics and the razor-thin line between love and hate. Taking place largely in the Australian suburb of Centennial Park in the early 1970s, we see the wealthy matriarch Mrs. Hunter as physically frail and mentally deteriorating yet in full command of her ability to control and berate. She has two grown children she was never able to love and have been estranged from her for years. One is Basil (Geoffrey Rush), a financially struggling stage actor now living in London. The other is Dorothy (Judy Davis), who, through a marriage that didn’t last, became a Princess in France. Neither are particularly close and have nothing in common, and yet their return to Sydney is motivated by a shared goal, namely to get their mother shipped off to a nursing home. The sooner she dies, the sooner they can claim their inheritances.
“My mother believed,” says Basil during his opening narration, “that being of a certain class entitles you to die whenever you damn well please.” Indeed, Mrs. Hunter defiantly clings to life, accustomed to having everything go her way despite the fact that she lies in bed or on couches, having lost the ability to walk. Whenever in the presence of company, mostly her children, she insists on wearing makeup and a wig – a desperate attempt to preserve what she no longer has. On the surface, Basil appears to be his mother’s emotional equal, able to trade barbs with her and laugh them off. But on the inside, he’s a wreck, lacking the fortitude necessary to be in her presence. How fitting that he’s an actor, a profession defined by hiding behind characters. In terms of strength, Dorothy has what Basil lacks. This comes, however, at the cost of her social disposition. Whether she likes it or not, she’s only a hair’s breadth from being just like her mother.
Mrs. Hunter’s staff members are given their own minor subplots, all of which demonstrate the depths of her controlling behavior. There’s her nurse, Flora (Alexandra Schepisi), who enters an empty relationship with Basil and is under the impression that Mrs. Hunter actually likes her. There’s her housekeeper, Lotte (Helen Morse), whose guilt over surviving the oppression of Nazi Germany has driven her to a half-mad form of self-oppression. She feels obligated, for example, to dress in provocative clothing and perform cabaret numbers for Mrs. Hunter, who dictates how fast she should twirl around. And then there’s the family lawyer, Arnold Wyburd (John Gadden), who helps Mrs. Hunter draft her will. Despite being married, he has had feelings for Mrs. Hunter for quite some time, presumably unaware that their encounter several years earlier was merely her acting on how she felt at that given moment.
Have I made this movie sound like a soap opera? It’s nowhere near that simple. All of the characters, even the viper-tongued Mrs. Hunter, are so complex that our feelings for them fluctuate from scene to scene, sometimes from minute to minute. We recoil at Mrs. Hunter’s extremely hurtful jabs, but at the same time, we marvel at the way she works herself back towards that sense of peace and humility. This is her final act of defiance; despite her faltering lucidity and her weak body, she refuses to die on anything apart from her own terms. Characters like her make movies like The Eye of the Storm a challenge, and I suspect many audiences will find it too emotionally convoluted. Perhaps it’s a matter of having to view the film repeatedly in order to fully understand it. As with people, it might not be so bad once you get to know it.
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