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‘Kangaroo’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 15, 1987

"Kangaroo," Tim Burstall's adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, is like much of the writer's work: sincere, passionate and somewhat overwrought.

Ostensibly dealing with a fictional fascist underground group in Australia, the Australian-made film, like the novel, dips frequently into Lawrence's recurrent theme of gender politics -- as experienced with his partner and wife-to-be, Frieda. The real-life Lawrences were permanently on the literary lam from intellectual oppression and other perceived evils of European society. The couple had lived in England, Italy, Germany, Austria and Ceylon before entering Australia in 1922. And "Kangaroo" was the result of the Lawrences' brief Outback sojourn.

Husband and wife Colin Friels and Judy Davis play Richard and Harriet Somers (based heavily on the Lawrences), who have left wartime England in 1917 because Harriet is German and Richard is considered a traitor and pornographer.

In Australia the couple go through changing attitudes about the place. At first Richard is misanthropic about the country, while Harriet is rather charmed by it. Neighbor Jack Calcott (John Walton) turns out to be a key member of an underground group that vows allegiance to "Kangaroo" -- a code name for their portly and effete fascist leader. Richard Somers, seeking alternatives to the "mob rule" of democracy, flirts briefly with the group, as well as the rival socialist movement, until things turn violent.

In the meantime Harriet has changed her tune about Australia and the Somerses get involved in sexual clashes with each other as well as the Calcotts. Somers wants to keep his wife out of his politics and to control her much as Kangaroo controls his legions. Mrs. Calcott is attracted to Somers, but Harriet won't reciprocate with Jack. "Kangaroo" becomes the story of a frustrated man unable to control anything or anyone, whose only moral options are honesty and flight.

Friels (who played the title role in "Malcolm"), with his squinty, shy demeanor, more than looks the part of Somers/Lawrence. And he projects just the right balance of quirky brilliance and self-obsession. Davis ("My Brilliant Career") is even better. As the frank, independent Harriet, she's eminently believable, down to the German accent.

But Friels and Davis must act within a clumsy, politically facile scenario. The fascist leader (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is a notch above the average James Bond archvillain -- hidden in a fortress home, surrounded by a small army, and given to narcissistic ravings and horseback riding. The inevitable clash between fascist and socialist groups is too dull to be exciting and too melodramatic to be believable. The police are corrupt, of course.

Where Friels and Davis do their D.H. 'n' Frieda thing, the film has a pleasant feel -- a kind of literary You Are There. But when they contend with the ponderous political forces around them, the movie goes down and under.

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