Red Diapers, Down Under
Children of the Revolution
REMEMBER THAT MOVIE about the pig that herded sheep? Remember how it was colorful, Australian, and an implausible attraction like nothing you'd ever seen before? Here's another one, and while it's Australian too, I'd hesitate to call the coincidence a national conspiracy.
Just as George Miller did with Babe, writer/director Peter Duncan steers the unlikely premise of Children of the Revolution from absurdity to meaning. A semi-black comedy about unwavering leftist loyalty crossed with mother love, this movie is genuinely like no other. It proposes a die-hard communist (Judy Davis) as heroine, chronicles her one-night stand with Stalin (F. Murray Abraham), then checks up years later on the child the rendezvous produced. He's more than a chip off the old block; he's a little devil reincarnate. To his mother's horror, the boy threatens to reinvent Stalinism in 1980s Sydney.
In town to promote his movie--an easy task in this case--Peter Duncan discussed the film's eccentric-but-true underpinnings. "Post-WW II communism in Australia was demonized, and there was a stigma to being communist," Duncan explains. "But there were no McCarthy-style witch hunts as in the U.S. The people were given the chance to vote on outlawing communism, and they didn't pass the ban. So the true believers happily kept up with their beliefs."
These "true believers" included Duncan's own grandfather. "The great irony was that he was a bank manager--for a private bank!" the director notes with a chuckle. "So he dealt with large personal holdings, but he himself never owned a home, and went to his Party meetings regularly. He was all for nationalizing the very business that paid his living."
Just as Duncan's grandfather represented the contradictions of his beliefs, so too does Judy Davis's Joan in the movie; she's the other "child" alluded to in the title. Though her son goes through life liking jail (and then jailers), before threatening to imprison his entire country, Joan remains a wide-eyed innocent to the end. Summoned to Moscow in 1951 because her mash notes have made Stalin misty-eyed, Joan fails to notice what a vain fool he is. Later, she doesn't want to believe that he was a butcher; the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 pains her greatly.
Children of the Revolution's mix of absurd cabaret shtick with the threat of real tyranny was Duncan's self-imposed challenge. "According to Geoffrey Rush, it's Mel Brooks meets Battleship Potemkin," Duncan says, citing his movie's co-star (better known as the piano man from Shine). "I knew I wanted a complex movie, and I never wanted it funny all the way. It starts funny, punchy, and colorful, and then it gets sad and gray--on purpose. The design colors match the emotions in each period of the story."
Davis is central to Duncan's professed program. Always on the run, full of beliefs but never pausing to think, Davis's Joan presents the actor at her best. As in the memorable hedgehog/fox interior monologue in Husbands and Wives, here Davis overflows with twitchy, brainy foolishness. Duncan and Davis are blessed with the company of fellow Aussie travelers Rush and Sam Neill (playing a weary but loving double agent); as son Joe and his law-enforcing bride Anna, Richard Roxburgh and Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) are neatly in tune.
"Politics has become about the accretion of power rather than the functions of government," says Duncan; it's a thought he hopes people will recall even during the hit-and-run jokes of his unusual comedy. After describing his distaste for the "cult of personality" that resurfaced during the Thatcher/Reagan era of Western politics, he insists that Children is "about blind faith--and asking the audience to look closely at whatever agenda is before them. And to both laugh and think about that-- simultaneously."
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