Hearts and Bones

Hearts and BonesHearts and Bones

Ambitious new Australian film reflects on images of war

A war photographer has just returned home to prepare for his latest exhibition when a South Sudanese refugee appears at his door with a request - that he not exhibit any photographs of the massacre in his village, taken 15 years earlier.

What emerges is an unlikely friendship between the two men. While sifting through the photographer's archive, they make a startling discovery - the refugee's daughter, thought dead, may still be alive. As more revelations arise, both men begin to question their past and in their search, they discover salvation.

Director: Ben Lawrence
Writers: Beatrix Christian, Ben Lawrence
Stars: Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney




M, 110 minutes, iTunes and Google Play
Reviewed by PAUL BYRNES | smh.com.au

A famous war photographer returns to Sydney after a particularly rough assignment. A small child in Syria died after he took her picture, probably because of the picture. After 30 years of believing his pictures had a purpose and made a difference, he is no longer sure.

Ben Lawrence, in the first scene of his debut feature, announces a weighty theme and a high ambition

- two things that set him apart. Australian cinema isn't noted for its risk-taking nor its internationalism, although that may be changing.

I can think of three superb films in the past two years that went offshore for powerful stories about the modern world: Buoyancy, Jirga and Hotel Mumbai. Hearts and Bones is strong enough to join them.

Are we beginning to look outwards rather than inwards? For most of our cinematic history it's been the other way around. That was right and proper, but it led to a kind of isolationism in our films - an odd stance for a country built on immigration.

Hearts and Bones is partly about the impossibility now of that kind of isolationism. Hugo Weaving, as David Fisher, the photographer, brings the tragedy of the world home with him. He is worn out but won't admit it. His long-suffering girlfriend Josie (Hayley McElhinney) soothes his pain as she has done many times, and announces she is pregnant.

David is appalled - first because he thought they had agreed on having no children. Second, because her medical history puts her at risk.

Her response is brutally frank: how many times have you risked your life without asking me?

The script, co-written by Beatrix Christian, burns slowly but with a design - a sort of parallelism, in which the problems of one character are reflected in another. Lawrence builds a series of overlapping conflicts , bringing them slowly to the boil, keeping us guessing.

A South Sudanese taxi driver invites David to photograph his choir. The members are all refugees and he can see this photographer needs help. I thought I could see where this was going - David's PTSD healed. Well, not quite.

The taxi driver, Sebastian (Andrew Luri), comes from a village where David photographed a massacre 15 years earlier. He wants to see the negatives. He asks David not to mention this to Anishka (Bolude Watson), Sebastian's wife. She is pregnant with their second child. She knows nothing of Sebastian's past. Perhaps the pictures have a purpose after all.

Ben Lawrence is himself a gifted photographer and the son of noted Australian film-maker Ray Lawrence (Bliss, Jindabyne, Lantana). This preoccupation with the power and responsibility of images is not new in the son's work. He made a feature-length documentary in 2018 called Ghosthunter, about a Sydney man who tries to bust ghosts. Lawrence made the ethical issues, particularly the issue of consent, part of the weave of that film .

Hearts and Bones extends that thinking. War photography is by its nature exploitative, but in the era before mass communications it had a noble purpose. Does it still have that purpose? A montage at the end takes us through some of that history, with powerful images of refugees from World War II and before, right through to more recent and chilling images of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean trying to make it to Europe.

Lawrence never makes the question explicit, but he doesn't have to. Australia is hardly excluded from such dramas or the arguments that follow about the meaning of specific images. Tampa, anyone?

Hearts and Bones is a thoughtful and engaging story, driven by exceptional performances. We expect that from Hugo Weaving, who has made masculine alienation his special subject. But Luri had never acted. The film succeeds partly on his performance, because he brings the powerful idea.

When we look at a war photograph it's a kind of abstraction, through the effect of time. For a moment, we go to them, the photographed, to try to feel what they felt. But what if the subject comes to us later, to ask what we did to help them?

Available on iTunes and Google Play

This review is from the May 8, 2020 issue of The Age Digital Edition.
To subscribe, visit theage.digitaleditions.com.au.

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