‘Because I do not hope to turn again. Because I do not hope. Because I do not hope to turn.’ The Turning, an ambitious anthology film from Australia, begins with a voiceover reading of T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, a statement that lets us know from the start that this beguiling and lyrical film is not the work of one person, but rather the sum of many parts; each voice wears its influence on its sleeve, while each sounds entirely unique. Take what meaning you want from Eliot’s elusive words, and likewise, The Turning’s meaning is whatever you take from it.
In taking the form of separate stories, each telling a narrative concerning life in modern Australia and based on revered author Tim Winton’s source text, the movie makes the most of both its breadth and its unity. Each story’s viewpoint is from the working or middle class, and as such is instantly relatable: one segment takes place in a trailer park, while another concerns the fishing trip of a group of Aboriginal natives. Yet despite these disparate backgrounds, the stories are tonally tied together, not just thanks to Winton’s original lens on society, but to each director (of which there are 18, in the film’s full 180-minute cut) drawing from the same aesthetic toolbox. This gives a cohesion to each segment unseen in most anthology-format movies, but among the chief pleasures of The Turning is seeing some of your favourite actors from down under, such as Miranda Otto, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Rose Byrne, all do some of their best work; while witnessing others such as Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham show-off their otherwise unseen talents as great directors of short-form material.
But even if this great wealth of well-known talent wasn’t on display, The Turning achieves its lofty goal regardless of pulling these straying narratives into a thematically beautiful whole – mostly. Some stories let the others down: ‘Cockleshell’ and the title story ‘The Turning’ both feel slightly unfinished, while ‘Sand’ wastes too much time in symbolic territory to remember to forge an actual plot. But for every misstep, the film does something very, very right: ‘Commission’, which stars Weaving, is a tremendously meditative look at the relationship between a father and son that has long been estranged, while ‘Aquifer’, possibly the film’s most moving tale, is nearly entirely wordless, and is short storytelling at its best. But that The Turning does so much in so little time, multiple times, is reason enough to seek out this bright, heartbreakingly poetic rumination on lives that may be set a world away, but are brought closer than ever before.