By Ray Sawhill
The only films from New Zealand to receive a major American release in recent years are “Sleeping Dogs” and “Smash Palace,” both directed by Roger Donaldson. “Smash Palace” is about how a husband and wife jockey for position when their marriage goes flat, and it has a beautiful clarity and a plain-spoken elegance. Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) has brought Jacqui (Anna Jemison), whom he met and married in Europe, to the New Zealand boondocks. There, tinkering in an auto junkyard, building and racing a sophisticated car, teaching their daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson), how to use tools, and chuckling over snooker and beer with his friend Ray (Keith Aberdein), Al is content. But the chic Jacqui has grown bored. She wants a chance to feel pretty and saucy again; she begins an affair with Ray, takes the child and moves out. Al sputters impotently until, humiliated by a friend of Ray’s, he decides he must have Georgie all to himself, if only for a while, and he hatches a desperate, nutty plot.
The story may sound grim, but Donaldson, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Peter Hansard and Bruno Lawrence), tells it with unaffected wit. The film is congenial and funny, and it takes you farther than you expect. The warm, powdered light, the authenticity of the details and the patient rhythms bring you in close to Al and Jacqui; the action unwinds out of their deepest yearnings as if that were the most natural way in the world to tell a story. The principal actors let you look right into them: Bruno Lawrence and Anna Jemison keep Al and Jacqui’s inner fires burning ferociously, and little Greer Robson shows you the strength of Georgie’s emotional life.
“Smash Palace” was made on New Zealand’s North Island, a setting that seems both familiar and eerie. Not far from little wood houses, tall grasses and rolling hills that resemble down-home America are a rain forest and a fog-collared mountain — beyond the everyday slumbers something more essential. One long sequence cuts between Georgie, sucking her thumb and clicking a flashlight on and off, as if trying to hypnotize herself into numbness, and, in another room, her quarreling parents. Al and Jacqui trade accusations, scream at each other and come to blows. As Jacqui sobs, Al pulls her clothes off and makes love to her, brutally and despairingly. They lie back against the green and red quilt, and Jacqui, her flushed face streaked with tears and sweat, tells Al she’s leaving him. It’s a daring domestic scene, breathtakingly sustained. Roger Donaldson has made a film that has the surprises, the calm and the inevitability of a classic fable.
- A Kiwi tribute page devoted to Bruno Lawrence, who died in 1995.
- An interview with Roger Donaldson.
- Roger Ebert liked “Smash Palace” better than “Shoot the Moon,” a movie it resembles.
©1982 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.