As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019
The loss of child during pregnancy must be just about the most difficult thing a woman could possibly have to endure. As the foundation of a psychological drama, there could be no more solid way to ensure empathy with its protagonist. First time writer/ director Miranda Nation pushes this all the way as a photographer tries to cope with this horrendous loss. Her grief for the child she so desperately wanted is juxtaposed with the disregard a pregnant teenager has for the baby inside her. The fact that this girl has some connection to her husband complicates matters substantially.
When Claire (Laura Gordon) suffers a stillbirth it rocks her entire world from its axis. Although her husband Dan (Rob Collins), a former Aussie Rules star, is supportive, she believe he’s having an affair with troubled young woman Angie (Olivia DeJonge), whom she witnesses being ushered into a motel room by Dan. When it’s revealed Angie is pregnant Claire becomes dangerously preoccupied with her, and the baby she is carrying.
Gordon is wonderful in a physically and psychologically demanding role. She has amazing control of a scene during wordless moments that are eloquent and devastating through her expression and body language alone. She examines her naked body and the scars and stretchmarks left as permanent reminders of what she sees as its failure. There are no tears, but she radiates sadness. During a scene at a group session for bereaved parents, when Dan speaks about their loss, Claire gives him a look that could strip paint. She’s not willing to share her agony.
Nation expands the basic theme of grief and female connection to include football culture and its associations in Australia with toxic masculinity. Geelong, where the story takes place, is Aussie Rules country, which may not mean much to international viewers, but most will be reminded of any equivalent stories of the alleged bad behaviour of sport stars. The connection between Angie and wayward AFL bad boy Brett (Josh Helman) has echoes of the infamous case that divided Ireland last year.
Aptly for a film that uses water in numerous symbolic waves, Undertow is a turbulent, constantly shifting film that flits through domestic drama, psychologically thriller and the most intense melodrama. Such is its pull (and filmed with a glorious expressionistic eye by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott) it overcomes a few plot points that rely too strongly on coincidence to move the story along. These tend to be pivotal scenes, so it’s a bit of a shame that the otherwise beautiful, atmospheric and patient writing relies on less organic plotting.
Nevertheless, such is the brilliance of the two women at its centre that these instances of clumsiness can be easily forgiven. The relationship between that begins to form between Claire and Angie is a complex one that covers deceit, mistrust, protectiveness, solidarity, and perhaps even attraction. Nation is unafraid to muddy the waters with a dreamy eroticism and a really uncomfortable mix of grief and sex. It’s a brave, difficult and nebulous film with shifting sympathies and slippery morality.
Still doing the festival circuit after it premiered on its doorstep in Melbourne last year, Undertow deserves to be a breakout. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.