Adaptations of non-epic novels tend to be the best source for non-original films. Of course, a film and a novel are different forms. The difference needs to be respected and the film form needs to be more considered. It’s a difficult process–it requires real thought and attention. The neon sign of carelessness in an filmic adaptation of a prose work would have to be the narration lifted directly from the source material. Monkey Grip is full of that narration. It’s used as a bridging device, often when the main character, played by Noni Hazlehurst, is biking. Because, as we all know, people don’t bike to get from point A to point B, they bike to think about life’s mysteries. Occasionally–two or three times–the film doesn’t use that bridging device and forces the viewer to discern changes in time, place, and character relationships. At those times, Monkey Grip works fine. Well even. In addition to being a lazy device, the narration isn’t particularly well-written. In fact, when it goes on for more than a couple sentences, it’s bad. Monkey Grip, the novel, very well may be a bad novel. Unless a bad novel is bad because it features ghosts or dinosaurs, it does not have much filmic potential. I’m just guessing, but the closing narration was so poorly written, it was enough to take a half star off my rating for the film. The writing is bad.
The film’s about a divorced woman with a daughter who works in the Melbourne music industry. I have memories of seeing a movie and seeing people excited their music and being perplexed because the music was so bad. This viewing must have been when I was kid, but I can’t remember what it would have been. Whatever the genre of music in Monkey Grip–it’s pop, but pop changes; I’m sure if its Australian New Wave. It’s bad. The woman can’t sing. The lyrics are stupid. It’s painful. But I let it go, because Hazlehurst is a sad looking woman and she’s playing a sad woman and it’s fine. I could tell Monkey Grip wasn’t going to be anything special–you can tell with dramas, except Japanese family dramas, those tend to fall apart at end–and I was willing to put up with the narration.
The real problem with the film is its unawareness of itself. The Monkey Grip of the title is Hazlehurst’s heroin addict, actor boyfriend’s hold on her. He’s played by Colin Friels, who’s fine. His character is empty because the film is so empty. He’s supposed to be good looking and charming. Well, Colin Friels is good looking and charming, so that’s supposed to be enough… Actually, for the first half of the film, it is. In the first, the narration goes on and on about his outbursts, but we don’t even see one until fifty-five minutes into the film. This subject starts, in the narration, five minutes into the film. Lot of summary storytelling here, since Monkey Grip takes place over a year (exactly no less, same beginning and ending setting too, real cute). So Hazlehurst has to take care of Friels and it’s a simile for having a child who grows up and moves away. It’s not a metaphor because Hazlehurst tells Friels it’s like having a child who grows up and moves away, which it’s the nudity-laden sex scenes all the more weird.
But, Hazlehurst doesn’t have a visible relationship with the daughter. The kid’s cute. Her job is to be cute, nothing else. Precocious maybe. The film doesn’t recognize this oversight on the character’s part (since it’s an attempt at a first person point of view) and it makes Hazlehurst’s character hard to take seriously. There’s a scene where she flips because there’s a heroin needle out and her roommate doesn’t know about the heroin use… but the kid does. The attempt at the “old soul” kid and the childish mother, which the film tries to establish from the third or fourth scene, fails throughout. It’s unfortunate, since the kid, played by Alice Garner, probably gives the film’s best performance. Garner is actually the novel writer’s daughter–and, if you look it up on Wikipedia, there’s an explanation about the entire cast of characters being on the dole. That situation was never explained in the film and all the actors, who are pretty bad, look way too old to be in college.
Since the direction’s so pat, it’s impossible to get interested in Monkey Grip. For most of the film, the narration is a poor choice, only getting bad toward the end (it even disappears for fifteen minutes or so, which is great). While fails to engage the viewer, it’s not awful… However, the less said about the scary movie music (it reminds of John Carpenter’s Halloween score) and the low motion shots, the better.
Directed by Ken Cameron; screenplay by Cameron, based on the novel by Helen Garner; director of photography, David Gribble; edited by David Huggett; music by Bruce Smeaton; production designer, Clark Munro; produced by Patricia Lovell; released by Cinecom Pictures.
Starring Noni Hazlehurst (Nora), Colin Friels (Javo), Alice Garner (Gracie), Harold Hopkins (Willie), Candy Raymond (Lillian), Michael Caton (Clive), Tim Burns (Martin), Christina Amphlett (Angela) and Don Miller-Robinson (Gerald).