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The Films Of Peter Weir: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist January 20, 2011 at 8:29AM

Lord knows, we Playlisters love a cinematic polymath: a director whose interests seem unconstrained by the strictures of any one particular genre and who instead leaps nimbly, if not always successfully, from sci-fi to epic to thriller to comedy -- think Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom or Ang Lee. Peter Weir is almost one of these -- his feature film resume boasts everything from mystery to horror to romcom to historical epic, but he falls just short of true all-rounder status because a glimpse at his back catalogue really suggests that while he has dallied with various genres, he’s more comfortable staying within shouting distance of 'human drama.' In fact, you get the impression that Weir only crosses genres because he is following his particular thematic preoccupations (fish-out-of-water scenarios, man vs. nature struggles, etc.) where they lead, rather than because of some kind of intellectual compulsion to kick against his limitations through experimentation.
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Lord knows, we Playlisters love a cinematic polymath: a director whose interests seem unconstrained by the strictures of any one particular genre and who instead leaps nimbly, if not always successfully, from sci-fi to epic to thriller to comedy -- think Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom or Ang Lee. Peter Weir is almost one of these -- his feature film resume boasts everything from mystery to horror to romcom to historical epic, but he falls just short of true all-rounder status because a glimpse at his back catalogue really suggests that while he has dallied with various genres, he’s more comfortable staying within shouting distance of 'human drama.' In fact, you get the impression that Weir only crosses genres because he is following his particular thematic preoccupations (fish-out-of-water scenarios, man vs. nature struggles, etc.) where they lead, rather than because of some kind of intellectual compulsion to kick against his limitations through experimentation.

The word, ‘almost’ can crop up a lot when talking about Weir -- he is almost A-list, he has made several almost-classics, and he can almost always be relied upon to spin a good yarn, if nothing else. But there is a feeling that he falls just short of making the greatness on display in his best work -- the lovely and strange “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the still-fascinating “Witness,” the underseen “Fearless” -- his default setting, and on occasion he becomes slightly anonymous behind the camera, allowing story or spectacle to power along seemingly under their own steam. It’s probably to his credit that he does not seek to put some sort of obvious authorial stamp on everything he does. He is maybe the least show-offy director around, but we know he can do solid, well-observed, convincing and emotive with his eyes closed; however to his best work he brings a unique quality of cerebral, outsidery oddness that we want to see more of.

The Way Back," which opens tomorrow in limited release, is not his best work. Our reviewer was much more positive about it, (read the review here) but this writer was underwhelmed by the episodic nature of the narrative, thought Jim Sturgess an uninspiring lead and found, bizarrely for a film with such epic, continent-spanning scope, it felt small and even stagey at times. So with that said, and the difference of opinion within the Playlist ranks duly noted, let’s take a look at Weir’s feature films and trace how he has, over the years, cemented his reputation as almost one of the best directors out there. - JK

“Witness" (1985)
Culture clash romantic thriller “Witness” may be gorgeously shot (thanks to Weir and DoP John Seale of “The English Patient”), but what’s most remarkable isn’t the rolling landscape of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Instead it’s the performance Harrison Ford gives, which netted him his only Oscar nomination to date. Before “Witness,” audiences primarily knew him for his blaster-shooting and whip- and wise-cracking skills in action franchises. He does get to shoot a handgun or two (thanks to his role as a cop who falls for the mother of his young Amish witness), but he’s most believable in the film’s quieter moments. Set to Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” our favorite scene features Ford’s cop dancing in a barn with Amish widow Kelly McGillis, and he plays it low-key, displaying both his character’s eagerness and his reluctance to charm. Ford has worked with the best directors in the business, but no other filmmaker got a performance out of him that feels as authentic as his work with Weir. [A]


“Fearless” (1993)
A man walks away from a devastating plane crash unscathed and consequently develops a godlike belief that he can’t be killed: the logline is high-concept, but this is about as far from a brainless popcorn movie as it’s possible for a mainstream film to get. Instead we get a smart, absorbing and heartfelt meditation on the nature of redemption and salvation (both in the non-religious sense) and an incredibly human, and humanist drama to boot. The cast (Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Hulce) are uniformly excellent, but it was the usually grating Rosie Perez who got the lion’s share of the notice, winning several critics awards and a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, for her turn as a fellow survivor who loses her baby in the crash: yet another example of Weir pulling a great performance from an unexpected quarter. The film could’ve easily veered off into melodramatic histrionics in a less intelligent director’s hands, but Weir’s restraint grounds the proceedings to give us a rare bird indeed: an absorbing drama, structured like a thriller with an eerie sense of foreboding throughout, that is not afraid to tackle some profoundly philosophical issues with grace and wisdom. It’s the kind of film that usually falls apart in its last third, lapsing into cliché or contrivance as the story struggles to answer all the questions asked in the opening acts, but here the ending is perfectly calibrated and delivers a deeply satisfying conclusion to an unusual and ambitious story. Masterful. [A]

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975)
While there’s no concrete evidence that Sofia Coppola’s career was influenced -- at least in a sideways direction -- by Weir’s moody, creepy drama about a group of schoolgirls, and their sometimes intimidating teachers, who mysteriously vanish after being drawn towards a peculiar rock formation in early 1900s Australia, the beautiful sunstroked photography of innocent yet enigmatic pubescent girls and the ethereal dreamlike sheen that permeates the picture surely must have made some kind of lasting impression. In fact it wasn't until Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," or maybe, to a lesser extent, fellow antipodean Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" that we saw again such a heady brew of adolescent female sexuality and friendship, blended with the uncanny. The connection probably ends there, though, because Weir’s picture doesn’t center on female teenage alienation and instead ventures off into territories and finds tenors that Coppola has yet to explore -- most notably a disquieting and eerie sense of unease and impending doom that makes you shiver just to think about. No, ‘Hanging Rock’ is not a horror film in the traditional sense or even a psychological horror, but the ghostly soundtrack (some music by Zamfir), unresolved ending and ambiguous aura make for a truly disturbing picture that may induce the subtler kind of nightmare. Helen Morse, Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray star and the spectral mystery is an enigmatic headscratcher that will stick in your mind like gum to your shoe and will haunt you long after it's over. [A]

This article is related to: Feature, Peter Weir, Features, Feature


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