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Tabula Rasa

Visitors

Directed by Richard Franklin, 2003

A review by Kyla Ward, 2003

Visitors, US DVD coverGeorgia: You fell asleep, you hit a whale. It wasn't a personal failure

Georgia Perry, a Melbourne native, is on the last leg of her solo, round the world sailing challenge. Initially in with a good chance at the current record, she has been becalmed in the Indian ocean for five days now and the strain is starting to tell. She sees a good-looking man she met shortly before embarking standing in the prow, wearing only a loin cloth. She is inclined to invite him into the cabin, but as Taco, her faithful feline companion says, let one in and soon enough, there will be others.

She's way past questioning the idea of a talking cat. If only she was inclined to take his advice!

The title comes from the rules for solo circumnavigation: the sailor can have no visitors on board for the duration. Georgia's only contact with the outside world is by radio; to her fiance, who is managing her attempt after his own failed; her father, wheelchair-bound after a yachting accident, and to the communications officer of a cargo freighter who warns her that Indonesian pirates have been sighted in her vicinity. Once Georgia opens the door to her first "visitor", others, much less welcome, come thick and fast and some at least may not be entirely hallucinatory. One thing's for sure, she is fighting for her life.

Richard Franklin is the director is Patrick (1978), Road Games (1981), Link (1986) and, in Hollywood, Psycho II among others. This film reunites him with the writer of Patrick, Road Games and Link, Everett de Roche. De Roche also has credits on Razorback (1984), Harlequin (1980), Snapshot (aka The Day after Halloween and several other variants) (1979) and Long Weekend (1977), and recently a slew of Australian television series. Between them they create a deft picture of the stress and fatigue that has brought their protagonist to this dangerous state, then let rip.

This film is a fine example of working the limitations of a setting. The claustrophobia and impossible crowding on board the yacht contrasts with the absolute emptiness of the ocean. We, the audience, come to understand the workings of the yacht and the importance of Georgia's gruelling routine. How easily an accident could happen. This is varied by the vistas of Georgia's mind -- flashbacks to the corporate games it took to get the sponsorship for her attempt, her mother's objections and accusations, the disagreements with her fiance. You're mad, he said. And there is much more; as we travel deeper into the past and further out on limbs of guilt and fear there are some truly effective images. We begin to realise that everything on board is both practical object and symbol; including, of course, the boat herself.

Symbolism is a tricky game to play. For the most part, Visitors manages well, bound together by a vigorous performance by Radha Mitchell as Georgia. Also notable as the female lead in the SF monster munch Pitch Black, she has the confidence and the physique to make the solo yachtsman (it's a gender nonspecific term, apparently) believeable. It is her practicality and competence that gives the hallucinations their edge, and which lead directly to the climax. Her father is played by Ray Barrett, an old Australian stalwart who can be seen in the likes of Frenchman's Farm (1986) and Contagion (1987). English actor Susannah York is chilling as her mother. And on the subject of performances, between them, that fluffy ginger cat and Steven Grives as his cynical voice produce a feline tour de force. How did they get the cat to give those dirty looks?

Visitors has a climax, and one well worth seeing. But somehow, from that point it all begins to unravel. Possibly the moment that is meant to be the second climax just doesn't manage to compete with the previous visuals. Possibly once the real/outside world finally came into view, I was expecting the film to make more of it, to at least reunite with solid ground. Symbols can get away from you badly, becoming obvious and sentimental, and for me the ending came off as flippant for this reason. To get halfway across the Indian ocean before being becalmed is an achievement, but not a record. So while Visitors is certainly an achievement and a better suspense film than many others, it is not Franklin's masterpiece. See it, but be prepared to call in search and rescue at the last moment.

And remember to clean out the bilges...

 

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