`Innocence' has rare emotional honesty

Review: Australian movie portrays love as the powerful force that it sometimes is.

November 23, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The inspiring heroine of Innocence is Claire, an Australian woman who feels she has never been known for who she is until Andreas, her lover in Belgium 50 years ago, realizes they've been living in the same city, Adelaide.

He was her first love - the once and future man of her dreams until his father broke up their relationship. Pushing for a reunion, Andreas rekindles their passion despite her marriage to another man who respects her as a fond, efficient mate.

Andreas wins her not with blandishments or flattery, and not even by expressing his ache to retrieve what they'd lost. He succeeds because he approaches her in all his weakness. Claire sleeps with Andreas after she sees how shaken he is when he witnesses cemetery workers moving the remains of his long-dead wife. His need awakens her power. Innocence is the rare movie in which honesty and emotional integrity have a more persuasive potency than conventional notions of attractiveness and strength.

In this movie, love doesn't conquer all, but it does vitalize all. When they commit to each other, Andreas and Claire know what they're in for. Andreas' daughter worries about his sentimental streak and tendency to revere the past. Claire's son understands her long-thwarted yearning for fulfillment but tries to negotiate a rapprochement between her and her incredulous husband, who feels both upended and betrayed.

Actually, none of them knows Claire fully until the simultaneously ecstatic and tragic climax - and a coda that makes the leap from flesh to spirit in a manner akin to Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. Claire has medical as well as emotional heart problems, and Andreas learns that he has cancer; this movie is about an affair near the end of life. But it never goes sappy.

Alone among a parade of films declaring that all you need is love, Innocence defines love as it goes along - as the force that enables you to see another person whole and then, by extension, all humanity.

I've never before been a fan of the writer-director, Paul Cox, but here he's able to put the audience into the center of the couple's shared soul. The flashbacks to Belgium are poignant not merely because of the way the young lovers match up with the old ones, but also because these atmospheric scenes - autumnal even in their depiction of youth - anchor us to the characters' most intimate perceptions of each other.

Innocence celebrates consciousness as much as it does emotion; that's one reason the older actors are more seductive to us than the younger ones.

Charles Tingwell, as Andreas, has the ability to make his thickened features come alive with a piercing sweetness, and Julia Blake has a towering valiance and sensuality as Claire. But the key to both their performances is their treatment of aging as an enriching process. Their bank of experience is what compels them to be true to their purest emotions, whatever the consequences. And, in a different yet related way, Terry Norris as Claire's husband (he's Blake's real-life husband, too) journeys from a comical to a touching depiction of the tyranny of habit.

Although this is a chamber drama and its narrative possibilities are limited, we're never quite sure how it will work out. As Cox and Blake reveal Claire's flourishing capacities for humor and physical expression, dancing and retelling a dirty joke among old friends, we wonder whether Andreas may ultimately be no more than her agent of renewal. But the movie has more of a miracle in store for us than that, and Cox brings it off without sanctimony or false warmth.

Innocence feels under-populated even for a small movie; at times it borders on the precious. The silliness of Andreas' befuddled housekeeper, who assumes she won't be needed once Claire spends the night, comes as a comic counterpoint - and a relief. But this movie has a quiet audacity that pulls you in. It calmly creates a heightened perception of life and expands your understanding of life outside the movie theater.

Innocence

Starring Julia Blake and Charles Tingwell

Directed by Paul Cox

Rating Unrated

Running time 95 minutes

Released by IDP

Sun score ***1/2

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