Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

The Broken Circle Breakdown ★★★★★ MA

In 2009, Belgian Compagnie Cecilia produced a smash hit play written by and starring Johan Heldenbergh. It was entitled The Broken Circle Breakdown featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama. Director Felix Van Groeningen and Carl Joos subsequently adapted the play for the screen and shortened the title. The Broken Circle Breakdown won the Audience Award at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards.

What initially promises to be an alternative, light-hearted romance soon reveals itself to be a particularly confronting drama that debates fundamental issues and beliefs. Brought together by a shared love of all things American, especially bluegrass music, Didier (Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) set up house in a picturesque old farmhouse outside Ghent. With a group of friends, they play in a country and western band. The unplanned arrival of a daughter, Maybelle (an amazingly natural performance by young Nell Cattrysse), seemingly reinforces their love. Yet, as Elise sadly comments, it was too wonderful to be true.

When their little daughter is stricken with cancer, Didier and Elise deal with their mounting grief in very different ways. Elise is a tattoo artist who literally wears her heart on her skin. She comforts herself and their child with romantic, quasi-religious notions of reincarnation.

Atheistic Didier, however, remains firmly rational. His admiration of all things American turns into bitterness at that country’s obsession with religion. In particular, he rails against the ethics of politicians like “that bastard Bush” who oppose the embryonic stem cell research that might save the lives of children like Maybelle yet are willing to spend billions furthering technology for killing people.

Throughout the film, their music (written by Bjorn Eriksson) helps the characters deal with both joyous and tragic occasions. Editor Nico Leunen’s non-linear presentation of the story explains the characters’ emotional journey in a most humane way. Although the issues confronting the characters are devastating, The Broken Circle Breakdown is definitely not a depressing film. Rather, it is an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.

Five stars from me.

Sunshine on Leith ★★★ PG

Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks in Sunshine on Leith.

One usually associates the term “musical” with “comedy”. Sunshine on Leith, however, is more than a feel-good film, touching as it does on very real issues of love and war. From the pre-titles scene where Davy (George Mackay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) and their unit are singing the fatalistic lyrics “It could be tomorrow/ it could be today” as they bounce along in an armoured personnel carrier in Afghanistan, the cast sing their way through 13 of The Proclaimers’ hit songs which inspired Stephen Greenhorn to write the stage musical on which the film is based.

Back home in Leith, Ally is reunited with his girlfriend Liz (Freya Mavor), who is Davy’s sister. Davy falls for Liz’s friend, Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), even though she is English! However, like Davy and Liz’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks), the four young people find out that making a relationship work is not a simple matter. These characters are all grounded in reality and the dilemmas that they face are very believable. Because the narrative was inspired by, and built around, the lyrics of The Proclaimers’ songs, it feels surprisingly natural when the characters break into song, whether in the street, the pub or alone. Just as director Paul Englishby and musical director Dexter Fletcher capture the resilient spirit of its people, director of photography George Richmond captures the essential stoicism of the medieval city with its grey stone buildings and cobbled streets sprawled around its imposing castle.

It’s a film with heart and it’s well worth a look.

The Trip to Italy ★★★ M

Reunited when The Observer commissions a sequel to Rob’s article on their trip around Britain, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden set off for Italy. Steve has been working in Los Angeles and evidently living a lonely, abstemious existence while Rob is drained from the hard slog of parenthood. The poor boys need a break.

Setting off in a Mini Cooper coupe, the pair just has to do a Michael Caine impression. Soon they are back in the swing of trying to outdo one another with a seemingly effortless string of impersonations. From Liguria, through Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi to Capri, they live in five-star luxury hotels with magnificent views, eating perfectly presented meals and drinking only the best wine: “You can’t do the Atkins diet in Italy”.

Rob is upset when his wife Sally (Rebecca Johnson) is too stressed to chat long-distance. Similarly, when Steve’s teenage son (Timothy Leach) actually wants to spend some time with him, Steve goes all angst-y. While Coogan and Bryden are very clever and the film is a laugh a minute, they (that is, the characters they play) do come across as self-centred male chauvinists. (Having once been at home with three young children while their father — my now ex-husband — was travelling in Italy, I definitely empathised with Sally.) That apart, like the romantic poets Byron and Shelley the duo feel that their lives are redefined by their time in Italy.

The scenery is magnificent, the food and wine look mouth-wateringly succulent. Director Michael Winterbottom and his cast sustain the illusion of spontaneity when in fact The Trip to Italy is a triumph of cinematography and editing, thanks to the skills of James Clarke and Mags Arnold respectively. The panoramic aerial shots of the Mini coursing along the winding Amalfi coast are breathtaking.


Teachers' festival fare

Two offerings from the Sydney Film Festival from June 4-15 are of particular interest to teachers: Words and Pictures, set in a school, and Berkeley, a documentary about an elite American university.

Two other films centred on children and young people are A Story of Children and Film which examines the portrayal of children on the big screen and Gabrielle which explores concerns about whether a developmentally-challenged girl can handle an adult sexual relationship.

Words and pictures

Fred Schepisi returns with a romantic drama starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as teachers at an elite school who argue over which is more powerful: the word or the picture. (Schepisi will deliver this year’s Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture at Event Cinemas on Monday June 9, 4.45pm.)

Screenings: Monday June 9, 2.20pm at the State Theatre, Sydney, and Tuesday June 10, 6.30pm at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace, Cremorne.

At Berkeley

Documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman’s portrait of an elite American university, California’s rabble-rousing Berkeley, has been hailed by The New Yorker: “No other filmed portrait of higher education matches this one for hard-nosed insight, comprehensiveness, sympathy, and hope”.

Screening: Saturday June 14, 10am at Dendy Opera Quays, 2 East Circular Quay, Sydney.

Tickets for all films and Schepisi lecture through

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School.