Paul Cox’s Force of Destiny cannot really be faulted for aiming to be an earnest exploration of impending death and pushing a strong pro-organ donation message, whilst also, as Cox said before the film opened the Melbourne International Film Festival last night, strongly arguing for the importance of love in humanity. In the film’s execution, though, this journey through grief and self-evaluation is a scattershot affair, abstract collages distract from the mostly plain cinematography, the gradually (and unnecessarily) non-linear plotline confuses rather than enlightens. Just as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, another MIFF film this year, depicts a cancer narrative through the idea of artistic creation (though it’s a process of near-insufferable whimsy), so too does Force of Destiny, with a partially-developed sense of art as expression and an unconvincing visual poetry, man’s connection to the universe asserted in digressive montage.
The film is drawn from Cox’s 2011 memoir Tales from the Cancer Ward and Robert (David Wenham) acts as something of a surrogate figure for the director, with the art of filmmaking swapped out for sculpture. Robert’s work is wrought from metal, conjured up from discarded scraps, and he lives a seemingly comfortable (and probably affluent) life.1 When he’s diagnosed with cancer of the liver, he’s forced to grapple with the value of his own life whilst also navigating issues of family and love; his wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie) wants to undo their state of separation and care for him in his final months, yet spurns him as he falls for Maya (Shahana Goswami), an Indian woman working at the aquarium on an exchange program.
Cox positions Robert as something of an everyman facing mortality, his internal monologue runs the gamut from amusing self-deprecation to dime-store philosophising, particularly in the frustratingly empty recurring phrasing of “what does [insert concept here] really mean?” The problem with making Robert both surrogate for personal memoir and a broad audience is that when he comes off as a surprisingly dull protagonist, the film as a whole suffers almost irredeemably. This is in spite of some impressively nuanced work by Wenham, though that nuance does not extend to his voiceover.
Cox’s expansive filmography suggests contextual excuses for some of the more clumsy moments in Force of Destiny. His 1987 feature Vincent, about van Gogh, explains why the painter’s work appears twice in his new film, though it doesn’t entirely make up for how forced those scenes feel. His acting role in Guy Maddin’s 1992 film Careful goes some way in explaining the more abstract collages that are peppered throughout – some of which are the strongest parts of the film, though a surreal dream sequence involving slabs of meat is most certainly the worst thing on show.
His two documentaries about India and his retrospective at the upcoming Indian Film Festival of Melbourne make it hard to accuse Force of Destiny of cultural fetishisation, but there are distinct elements that suggest as much. Robert’s first dream of Maya, and thus his subconscious act of falling in love, sees her wearing a sari and walking through an empty village, scored by sitar music. Her very existence in the plot is to almost embody the liver transplant Robert seeks – the arrival of (and rushed depiction of love from) someone from a culture so distinct from his own gives him a new lease on life. Just as strange is the fact that scenes set in India, with Maya and her family – her ailing uncle is also dying of cancer, a neat touch – are entirely in English, the film too self-aware about getting its increasing obfuscated messages about love and life through to its audience.2
That noted, Maya does at least fare a bit better than the other women in the film, helped by the fact that Goswami, like Wenham, does well with the script she has been given. It’s rare for an Australian film to have female leads outnumber men three-to-one, but unfortunately here they mostly serve as a means to dote on Robert, or to remind him that he is loved. Hannah’s sudden jealousy at Maya’s affections feels pat, the emotional catharsis for their teenage daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) is a cringe-inducing scene in which she screams into the surrounding bushland.3
Cox clearly does understand the idea of personal trauma and the need to often suppress it, and there are some beautiful moments in Force of Destiny in this vein – the most moving sees a woman in hospital ask nurses to put some make-up on her so that the last time her 12-year old daughter sees her won’t be as a patient. This sequence is a microcosm of what Force of Destiny aims to be, death being interconnected with love, but in approaching a sense of collective grief without any particular depth of character, Cox’s film ends as a surprisingly artificial cancer narrative.