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OZ CINEMA
Your guide to Australian film.
By Joshua Smith

Film Review: The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: January 20, 1998

Leading Players: Noah Taylor (Danny), Loene Carmen (Freya), Ben Mendelsohn (Trevor), Graeme Blundell (Nils Olson), Lynette Curran (Anne Olson), Malcolm Robertson (Bruce Embling), Judi Farr (Sheila Embling), Tim Robertson (Bob Leishman), Bruce Spence (Jonah), Harold Hopkins (Tom Alcock).

Main Crew: prod, Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell, George Miller; dir, John Duigan; writ, John Duigan; dop, Geoff Burton; ed, Neil Thumpston; prod d, Roger Ford; cos, Lyn Askew, Fiona Nicolls.

Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke opens with a series of slow, meandering shots through the long grasses and over the hills that highlight the mythic country town that he has created. The photography during the opening sequence, concluding with a slow tracking shot towards the 'dream rocks' that top the hill, is reminiscent of Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975). Like Weir, Duigan does delve into the realm of the supernatural in explaining adolescent sexual awakening, mostly through the misguided preoccupations of Danny (Noah Taylor). He also paints a soft, romantic view of the rural Australian landscape while highlighting the malevolent darkness of small-town existence, only instead of a rock being the source of adversity, it is the people of the town, and the hidden guilt shrouding Freya's past, that hinder the growth process of the main characters.

Duigan has shaped the work in such a manner as to allow the audience to understand the depth of character that he has infused into the three leads. The main characters, while engaged in a love triangle that has been exploited cinematically on numerous occasions, such as in Chasing Amy (1997) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), are each seen to have multi-dimensional characters and deep motivations so as to avoid traditional clichés that tend to highlight such a storyline.

Danny is a cerebral youth who is enamoured of Freya, his childhood soulmate. His infatuation with Freya is a sign of his passionate core, and his desire to hold onto the predictable nature of his youth through his unique idiosyncracies, such as his belief in telepathy, shows his strong motivation towards retaining his past. Freya shares Danny's romantic and nostalgic view of her childhood, and shares many of his interests (even if only to please him). Similarly, Trevor's (Ben Mendelsohn) primal urge towards anti-authoritarianism, as well as tapping into the national archetype, displays his predilection with a simpler past.

With virtuososity, Duigan quickly establishes that the tragic relationship between the three characters is little more than a McGuffin that forms the basis for their development as individuals preparing to pass into the unpredictable realm of adulthood. As events unfold, most notably the realisation that Freya is the daughter of both a young prostitute who died while giving birth and Danny's father, we come to the realisation that Danny and Freya's love for each other will never be resolved physically.

Danny's incestuous longing for Freya skews the triad yet, somehow, accelerates the self-cultivation of his adult urge. Sexual awakening and the personal striving to seek direction are powerfully conveyed through the usage of sexual motifs throughout the film. Sexual acts, Freya's dark history, the reticent relationship between Danny's father and Freya's mother, Jonah's erotic novel, and Danny's sexual frustration as materialised through the voice-over narration and the contents of his bedroom are all examples of such motifs. Loene Carmen's performance, too, radiates a sexual vitality that places her at odds with the community and sends her in search of direction in her own life. Most notably,The Year My Voice Broke highlights themes of isolation. Just as Australia is culturally isolated from the remainder of the globe, the three juveniles in Duigan's tale are equally segregated from their community and, ultimately, each other. Their struggle represents a crossroad from which unmarked paths diverge, helping to emphasise the internal struggles that dominate the thoughts of most adolescents during such a crucial and sensitive period in their development.

The fact that the three main characters have, as their central aim, the desire for self-discovery is linked to a nostalgic and romantic view of the past that Duigan and Geoff Burton capture so skillfully in the visual tone of the work. In order to move forwards, Duigan suggests, the youths must first look backwards. This view of using the past as a method of advancement is realised by Danny and Freya through Jonah (Bruce Spence), a spiritual advisor-of-sorts, who takes it upon himself to reveal the youths' innermost desires, enlightening them philosophically during their period of sexual awakening. This adds to the romantic motivations of both Danny and Freya, and helps to explain Freya's preoccupation with the haunted house and the mysterious woman who once resided within.

Certainly a character driven piece, The Year My Voice Broke is shot with long takes that place an emphasis on character performance and interaction. To their credit, all three youths display tour-de-force naturalistic performances that highlight Duigan's emphasis on the development of each isolated individual that results from their interaction with each other.

The Year My Voice Broke takes the traditional adolescent 'rites of passage' tale to a new level. Just as Danny, Trevor and Freya are perched precariously between childhood and maturity, the community that surrounds them is situated somewhere between the past and the present. In this, the community itself is seen to be unsure of its direction as it matures.

The physical and emotional development of the youths finds links in their spiritual awakening. Such a development accelerates their transition from the romantic, nostalgic vision that each hold of life, to the realistic ideologies associated with adulthood. Visually, this transition finds roots in the colouring of the mise-en-scene. During the film's earlier stages, light, golden tones are used to romanticise the scene. As tragedies begin to befall the group, and their chosen paths take them into untrodden, unpredictable territory, the tone darkens and colours are not saturated quite as much. This indicates the hard-boiled reality of adult life as it strikes the three children prematurely.

 
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