'That Eye the Sky' a Magical Drama

By: Carol Furtwangler, Charleston Post & Courier, 11/06/97

eyesky20.jpg (17699 bytes)Choosing to feature Australian films in this year's Worldfest-Charleston is proving a distinct coup, as the full-length cinematic offerings from Down Under provide fresh perspectives, exploring uncommon themes with new eyes. That Eye, The Sky defies characterization on at least three levels: it is thematically a mixed bag somewhere between mystery, magic, science fiction and religion; it stars a child but is not for children; and it poses far more philosophical questions than it answers.

The story itself, based on Tom Winton's critically acclaimed novel of the same name, begins normally enough, with the family of Sam and Alice, their children Tegwyn and Morton, and the harmlessly senile Grandma living on a farm. Of course, this farm is situated in the kind of idyllic isolation possible only in a few places on earth, and the family is, in a word, eccentric. Within five minutes of the opening, after stunning shots of the breathtaking Australian landscape, Sam wraps his truck around a tree, and is left in a coma. He regains consciousness in the hospital but remains in a daze.

The strong-willed but dreamy Alice, played exquisitely by Lisa Harrow, decides to bring Sam home. This decision demands her total physical and emotional strength, heightening the dilemma of her rebellious daughter, her invalid mother-in-law, and the first year of high school for 12-year-old Morton, nicknamed Ort.

Into this volatile and fragmented household comes Henry Warburton, a drifter with evangelical zeal and a deeply troubled nature. Peter Coyote, who has made a career out of playing complex people (A Man in Love, Jagged Edge), delivers a powerful performance as Henry, infusing the character with a dark intellect and a depth of intensity that brings this shadowy figure to life. Henry brings help and healing, passion and conflict. But why is he there? What does he want?

eyesky21.jpg (22240 bytes)The dramatically valid story is told from the point of view of Morton, played in an extraordinary performance by Jamie Croft in his first feature-length film role. His world understandably is shattered by the sudden tragedy of his father's condition, which threatens the fragile hold each character has on reality. Thrown into sharp relief are the frustration felt by Tegwyn (Amanda Douge), acutely aware of her blossoming sexuality, Alice's mid-life longings and loneliness as she determines to care for Sam, and Grandma's obliviousness. Morton seeks to make sense of it all, comforted by the protective canopy of the stars and the vastness of the heavens, through the universal confusion endemic to youths moving from childhood to adolescence.

The appearance of the mysterious man who ministers to the family serves to strengthen Morton's faith, both in his father's recovery and in the basic goodness of the world. Only Ort can see the eerie glow, emanating from the infinite eye of the sky, that suffuses the family homestead. Of this and other purposefully unexplained phenomena, you must make what you will.

While the distinction between the natural and the supernatural is blurred, that is not the film's principal flaw. In translating Winton's poetic novel to film, director John Ruane, who with Tim Barton co-wrote the screenplay, compromises the point of view, allowing the audience to witness certain scenes that Morton could not possibly have knowledge of, even with his inveterate peeping through cracks in the walls. Added to this thoroughly professional production is an outstanding score and the work of cinematographer Ellery Ryan.

But it is the sensitivity of Ruane which makes the film sweet without being cloying, touching while avoiding sentimentality, and memorable for its staunch refusal to offer facile explanations in neatly wrapped packages.

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]