Occasionally, the making of a film is so catastrophic that it transcends the drama unfolding on screen. Director Paul Cox has withheld the full details of his battle with Molokai’s Belgian producers for legal reasons. Suffice it to say, their relationship was stormy. The producers fired him after filming wrapped, but Cox regained control of the negative and recut Molokai into the version now on release in Australia.Scripted by John Briley (Gandhi, Cry Freedom), the film is a would-be epic about a Belgian Catholic priest who tended Hawaiians with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in the late 19th Century. Damien (David Wenham) became a national hero for choosing to stay on the quarantined island of Molokai. He fought fearlessly and tirelessly to improve conditions there, eventually contracting the illness after prolonged contact with his charges. A crowd of famous faces (Sam Neill, Derek Jacobi, Kris Kristofferson, Leo McKern et al) fill out the cast as insurance, since Wenham was a virtual unknown when Molokai was made over three years ago.
The print and look of the film is, unsurprisingly, a little scrappy considering its chequered history. But Molokai remains a moving document of a man little known outside Belgium. Wenham’s portrayal, complete with convincing Flemish accent, centres the film. Damien is compassionate, inspiring and practical and his story is immensely moving.Cox avoids cheap sentimentality and adds to the film’s realism by shooting on Molokai and using Hansen’s sufferers as extras. The cameos are spread out and, as each role is important, do not distract from the central story. But they also add to the sense of dislocation attached to the film. A glossier sheen and a more punctual release might have assisted Molokai reach a deserved wider audience.