The unlikely heroine of Peter Duncan's Children of the Revolution is one Joan Fraser (Judy Davis), a red-haired, bug-eyed Australian Communist whose fervor doesn't stop with belting out "The Internationale" in the corner pub or forcing leaflets on bemused passersby. Joan is so hot for Bolshevism that she sends a steady stream of love letters to Stalin, like other young women write to movie stars.
Imagine Joan's surprise when Uncle Joe writes back. And when, having been whisked off to a wintry Party congress in Moscow, she finds herself the object of the old guy's revived desire. What's a good proletarian to do? What else? Bed down with the leader, consequences be damned.
Thus does black comedy address the cost of blind faith. But our Mr. Duncan, a savage wit who bodes well for the future of Aussie moviemaking, is not done yet--not by a long shot. Rooting around in the Kremlin circa 1953, he gives us a hilarious (if coarse) glimpse of sycophants and yes-men in terrified lockstep behind a paranoid tyrant, and he slyly suggests that Stalin (portrayed with bluff expertise by F. Murray Abraham) had a weakness for Hollywood fan magazines and dime-store cologne. This farcical figure even leads his top lieutenants in a slew-footed travesty of "I Get a Kick Out of You" right there next to the banquet table.
Funny stuff. But Children really hits full stride when Joan gets back home, with every illusion still intact. Wouldn't you know it? On the Fateful Night, it turns out, she slept not only with Stalin but with a suave Aussie double agent code-named "Nine" (Sam Neill). When she gives birth to a son nine months later, she's understandably in the dark, daddy-wise. So she moves in with Welch, an old suitor she's always spurned. Shine's millions of devotees will be delighted to see Geoffrey Rush reinvent himself in this juicy role of a fellow who cares more for love than politics--although just why Welch is so devoted to a joyless windbag like Joan remains a mystery as deep as her stubborn attachment to the monstrous Stalin.
"Never underestimate the Australians," the dictator has told an aide. "They're not as silly as they sound."
Well, sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. Joan's boy, named--what else?--Joe, turns out to be quite a handful. At age seven his favorite toy is handcuffs, and when he starts hanging around police stations, Duncan draws us into the questionable (but not dismissable) proposition that authoritarianism just may lie in the genes. As for Joan, her fidelity to socialism never wavers. There's still a fascist lurking behind every lamppost, and when Joe (Richard Roxburgh), a strapping conscientious objector to the Vietnam war by now, "inexplicably" falls in love with a pretty policewoman (Muriel's Wedding's Rachel Griffiths), Mom is simply outraged. Real red-blooded Communists, you may have noticed, were never known for their keen sense of irony.
Luckily, Duncan doesn't suffer from the same deficiency. A thirtysomething Sydney lawyer who never really wanted to face a life of commercial litigation, he happily enrolled in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School at the beginning of this decade and made a mark with a couple of short student films. Children of the Revolution is his first feature, and it stems, he says, from memories of his own grandfather, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the 1940s who never wavered in his beliefs until the day he died. Thank heaven for Granddad--he's provoked a good piece of work, nicely spiked with ironies.
It wouldn't be nearly as effective without its red star. Judy Davis's brilliant career began twenty years ago with My Brilliant Career and has ranged wide in movies by the Coen brothers, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, among others. In Children, she manages to balance dark farce, flagrant situation comedy and serious political commentary in a character who's at once ridiculous and ferocious. There shouldn't be much to like in poor, delusional Joan unless you value obstinacy above all else--the persistence of fiction in the presence of fact. But Davis gives us good emotional reason to embrace this fool despite ourselves. Unfortunately, the film also casts some other forms of social protest in the same light as unrepentant Stalinism, a ham-handed failure to distinguish that compromises Duncan's powerful message about the limits of true belief.
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By movie's end, four decades have passed. Young Joe Welch has grown into a most peculiar Australian union leader, the Berlin Wall has collapsed under its own awful weight, and the self-martyred Joan has turned into a bespectacled, white-haired raver, strident as ever and a lot less amusing. Like an over-the-hill boxer or a discarded officeholder who's lost her clout, she has become, quite simply, History. And shouting at Gorbachev every time he pops up on the telly won't do anything to change that.
In the process, Children of the Revolution passes out of farce into the realm of something like bleak tragicomedy--not the worst choice in the world for a movie that aspires, among other things, to trace the decline of Communism in this century and give us a jolt of dark laughter en route. Despite a couple of miscalculations, it's the most enjoyable Australian film I've seen in years, and the headiest--due in great part to a superb leading lady who makes the most of a largely thankless task. Among moviedom's Davises, it's no stretch to say that Judy may now have surpassed Bette in the drama department.
Children of the Revolution.
Written and directed by Peter Duncan. With Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush and Rachel Griffiths.