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One Night the Moon

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 10/31/01 08:36:15

"Paul Kelly sings the blues"
3 stars (Average)

In some musicals the song-and-dance routines appear to have been dropped at random into the midst of an existing storyline. One Night the Moon, however, is described by its creators as an �opera-film�, a term which refers to a dramatic feature in which the musical interludes actually drive the narrative. To this end it succeeds admirably, though whether it will appeal to an audience looking for a traditional moviegoing experience is another matter entirely.

It is unfair to judge One Night the Moon by the standards applied to feature films, since it�s an unashamedly experimental effort that has little time for character development and intricate plotting. At 57 minutes it technically qualifies as a short film, a distinction that gives the filmmakers the freedom to pursue their vision without being constrained by commercial necessity.

The film is based on a true story about a child who went missing in the outback in the 1930�s. The girl�s father (Paul Kelly) refuses the assistance of an Aboriginal tracker (Kelton Pell), a decision based on race which is opposed by his wife (Kaarin Fairfax) and every other right-thinking member of the local community. The atmosphere grows steadily darker with each passing day, and the film works its way to a memorable climax which is a testament to the power of understated restraint.

Kelly is an Australian singer/songwriter of some renown � his work ranges from bar-room rave-up�s to Oz-roots folk, and it�s the latter that he brings to the table on this occasion. Working with Kev Carmody and Mairead Hannan, the song cycle is primarily acoustic, with additional backing reserved for the instrumental passages. The songs are a mixed bag - Kelly�s opening solo number is a low-key ballad which telegraphs the film�s downbeat atmosphere, and a melodic duet with Pell features exquisitely-crafted (though somewhat heavy-handed) lyrics about different ways of viewing the land, but most of Fairfax�s numbers (solo or otherwise) sound more like someone singing a script than an actual musical composition (this should not be taken as a criticism of her singing � she�s more than capable, but trading lines to forgettable backing music is best left to the cast of Les Mis�rables).

Since the film essentially amounts to one long video clip, Kelly is right at home in front of the camera. He�s always looked like a 1930�s kind of guy, and his realistic portrayal of despair lends the film the required weight. Pell and Fairfax�s performances are just as accomplished, and the film would not have suffered if they�d been permitted a few more lines of dialogue.

Director Rachel Perkins hauls her production team out to the Flinders Ranges, and the result is another beautifully-photographed excursion into the Australian outback. The rugged beauty of the scrub-littered desert is a cinematographer�s delight, and considerable effort has been expended on integrating the visuals with the soundtrack (I should note that certain shots do exhibit a disturbing amount of grain, but that might have been the fault of the print at my screening).

As you might expect, the storyline isn�t particularly well-developed, and if it wasn�t for the fact that it�s a true story you�d be hard-pressed to credit some of the actions of the major characters. However, the film�s greatest flaw is that there�s simply not enough songs to go around � the action lags with depressing regularity, as we�re forced to endure yet another extended sequence featuring nothing more than endless shots of the search party combing the countryside backed by mildly-diverting instrumentals. That�s fine if you�re crafting a commercial to promote South Australian tourism, but a film which purports to be pursuing a narrative requires a little more activity and a little less filler.

However, if we are to judge One Night the Moon by whether it achieves its ostensible goals, then it�s certainly a qualified success. The running time leads me to question whether a theatrical release is appropriate (it has all the hallmarks of a made-for-television endeavour), but if you buy into the �opera-film� concept then the impressive cinematography, thoughtful compositions and poignant denouement more than compensate for its brevity.

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