The Monkey's Mask: lost in translation

Kirsten Krauth

Kelly McGillis, Susie Porter, The Monkey's Mask

Kelly McGillis, Susie Porter, The Monkey's Mask

Books translated to films can be an easy bet and highly successful. Looking for Alibrandi, American Psycho, All the Pretty Horses have already garnered an audience who go along knowing what they’re in for. Then there are the duds. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Oscar and Lucinda. Sometimes you dread to hear that a favourite text is being transported to celluloid. E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is on its way, as is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with Nicholas Cage. I guess Barbara Kingsolver will be next. My favourite writer of the moment, her novels The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer have large-show-off-ensemble-cast stamped on every page. Then again, mum and I had a great few hours casting Kingsolver’s characters—it’s a delicious egoistic delight, manoeuvering our fantasies off the page and onto the screen.

The Monkey’s Mask—the book—is a rare treasure: a verse novel with sparse design that punches you in the guts. The 1998 theatrical adaptation downstairs at Belvoir Street was disappointing (RT#26 p42) and the film too, elegantly designed, shot and acted, lacks the raw, stomach churning power of Porter’s detective text. Too slick. No suspense. A travelogue of NSW. From the misty Blue Mountains to slippery shiny highrise sex, it’s beautiful one day and perfect the next. Where’s the dagginess and the real dirt? Susie Porter as Jill doesn’t look like she (or her heart) would ever wear pink tracksuit pants, as her monologue suggests. Her face is carved, toughly vulnerable; she doesn’t fit into this imagined poet’s world, where everyone seems to be a high flier, but who would? These types are monstrous; little Johnny will use this film as proof of the elite arts he no longer wants to fund. Thank god for Mickey—a wonderfully self-obsessed and insular performance by Abbie Cornish from Wildside—who disappears off the screen all too quickly.

Dorothy Porter can hit a raw nerve because she’s an observer from within and her eagle eye and ear capture perfectly the resonance of poet wannabes: the young female victim dying to be Sylvia Plath, the born-again poser keen to take advantage of his own moral goodness, the middle-aged bore at every pub reading who keeps saying ‘just one more’ as he sinks into his own sunset. Everyone’s shady. Deborah Mailman, playing Lou, the least sympathetic character in the book, does a surprising turn and rounds out this nasty piece of work, finely tuning her comic talent with a neat sinister edge. Kelly McGillis, who I was admittedly skeptical about after her Take My Breath Away days astride Mr Cruise-Missile in Top Gun, is magnificent in the role of Diana. Powerful, androgynous, sharp, she sucks us into her life/death world where the boundaries are unclear; a great modern day femme fatale.

The Monkey’s Mask is mostly about obsessive love between 2 women where the upperhand is determined by how much they know. For a relationship that revolves primarily around the physical—sex/games that go too far—their shared scenes are cold, uninvolving, behind glass. It’s rare these days that a sex scene moves the audience. (Praise is the last film I can remember that experimented with the usual roleplay.) Tear clothes off. Pash. Get on bed. Touch/kiss breasts. Camera pans down naked woman’s body. Actor on top moves slowly down, kissing. Camera follows then discreetly stops at waist. Pan back up naked woman’s body. Her face experiences delirious delights that we all know she isn’t having. Yawn. What am I after? Big Brother bondage thrills? Well…maybe. Not necessarily explicit (although why not in an R-rated film like this) but honest or imaginative or, well, sexy.

To enjoy this film, you need to not read the book. I was mouthing the lines before the actors did; not a good look. Better still, grab the paperback instead, settle into bed with a good red, and cast your own characters in a sexy, witty thriller that sets a pace this film can’t match.

The Monkey’s Mask, director Samantha Lang, writer Anne Kennedy, adapted from the book by Dorothy Porter, Arena Films, national release May 10

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 18

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001