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'High Tide'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1988


Gillian Armstrong
Judy Davis;
Jan Adele;
Claudia Karvan;
Colin Friels
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"High Tide," the new film from the Australian director Gillian Armstrong, has an ineluctable, atmospheric pull; it comes over you like the weather. Watching it, you feel held in the grip of emotions that affect you like natural forces -- big underground emotions that always threaten, but never quite manage, to break the surface.

It's this subterranean, not-quite-articulated quality of the emotions in "High Tide" that makes this movie so original. The subject Armstrong is working with here -- the relations between mother and daughter -- isn't a new one in the movies; it's a staple in fact. But the characters, and the special brand of socked-in moodiness she creates around them, are.

The star of the film is Judy Davis, and when the movie opens, her character, Lilli, is onstage dressed in a blond wig singing backup for a scuzz-bucket Elvis impersonator. And immediately we see the smirky disdain that Lilli has for her work, her surroundings and her employer -- her belief that she deserves better than this subamateur, show-biz purgatory.

You also know immediately that there's nothing else for her. Lilli is one of those characters who truly have no place in life and carry around with them their own personal climate of malaise. She always keeps a low-level rage boiling inside her, but her dissaffection doesn't seem altogether unmotivated; her circumstances are, in fact, abysmal, especially after Elvis gives her the boot and she's stuck with a broken-down car and no money out in a remote town called Eden on the coast of New South Wales.

It's while stalled in Eden in a run-down, seaside trailer community called the Mermaid Caravan Park that Lilli runs into Ally (Claudia Karvan), the teen-age daughter she left behind after her husband's death to be raised by her mother-in-law, Bet (Jan Adele). There's nothing earlier in the story to suggest that Lilli ever had any intention of visiting her daughter, or that she even knew that this is where she lived, and it may seem improbable that, of all places, this is where Lilli should find herself stranded. But it's a testament to Armstrong's open-ended approach to Laura Jones' screenplay that we never question the inevitability of their meeting.

It's in this ability to stage scenes that come together in an unpremeditated way that Armstrong shows her greatest strength. Nothing in "High Tide" seems set or worked out in advance; everything's in flux, and from moment to moment you can never be sure what might happen next.

This is especially true of her presentation of Lilli. Lilli's a floater. When Bet, who wants Lilli to stay away from Ally and protects the dreamy surfer girl with an all-out maternal ferocity, tells Lilli she doesn't know which way she'll jump next, it rings true. But much as she desires it, living a carefree, unstructured life doesn't really suit Lilli's nature. She's not light and free-spirited. Just from her beaten-out looks you can see that things register deeply in her.

It's Davis who allows us to see Lilli's interior life as large-scaled and expansive -- as expansive as Russell Boyd's sweeping land and sea scapes -- without making it seem larger than life. Emotions billow out of Davis, and she's got a great voice for bluesy melancholia. Her performance here is built out of smallish details and little moments, like the one in which she sits underneath a sink at the caravan singing a Dylan song, or the one in which she spies Ally shaving her legs for the first time, and in each instant we can feel the combination of desperate yearning and terror inside her.

Davis may convey mixed-up emotions with greater lucidity than any other actress working today. She doesn't need big scenes to create big effects, but when she's given one -- like the scene in the hotel room where she reveals to the earnest young suitor (Colin Friels) who wants to settle down with her that Ally is her abandoned daughter -- she's equal to it. Yet there's never anything of the bravura performer in her work.

Everything in Davis' work is supported, without rhetoric, and that makes her the perfect actress for Armstrong. Perhaps even more than in "Mrs. Soffel" or earlier with Davis in "My Brilliant Career," Armstrong communicates her themes here in terms of affinities, associations, metaphors. When we first see Ally, she's floating on her back in a tidal pool, and in some not completely explicable way, that image connects with Lilli's own rudderless meanderings and at the same time points up the similarities between the woman and her daughter.

There are a lot of images to take away from "High Tide." And everything is fresh, too, down to the supporting performances by Adele and Karvan, who resembles the very young Mariel Hemingway. The breathtakingly panoramic look of the film, with its deep ocean blues that seem cued to the colors of the actors' eyes, isn't quite what you'd expect either. But the exuberance of the compositions, and the wide-openness of the setting, seem to intensify the emotions, as if in this part of the world the drama and beauty of the environment were their physical equivalents.

But because of the intuitive, associative way that Armstrong has set things up, there are equivalents in everything. And everything is expressive, evocative -- even the seedy clubs where Lilli strips to earn money to make her getaway. The story never, never fixes itself for us, though, even at the end, when it seem as if a course has been set. And that's what keeps us thinking about it after the picture is over. We still believe, as the lights come up, that anything might happen; that at any moment the weather might change.

High Tide, at the K-B Paris, is rated PG-13 and contains some adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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