High Tide (1987, Gillian Armstrong)

During High Tide’s final twist, I began to wonder just how different the film would be with different music. Sometimes Peter Best’s score is fine—or even good—sometimes it’s very much a product of its time and using way too much saxophone. The film’s biggest melodrama beat, where it commits to just being a melodrama about long-lost mom Judy Davis reuniting with daughter-who-thought-she-was-dead Claudia Karvan, the music utterly flops. It’s a questionable sequence at best—director Armstrong and writer Laura Jones have completely lost any sense of narrative distance or perspective by this point in the film—but it Best’s accompanying music just makes it silly.

Doesn’t help the scenes immediately following are basically a rapid-fire montage to get the characters through their difficult “thinking and feeling” responses, skipping Davis altogether and giving Karvan yet another disagreement with grandmother and guardian Jan Adele. What’s even stranger is the film takes place in a very finite time period—a week and a couple days, yet sometimes it’ll seem like far more time has passed than could’ve, particularly with Davis’s romance with local boy Colin Friels.

It’s all a shame because the first act is excellent. Davis comes to this small-town on tour; she’s a backup singer and dancer for an Elvis impersonator. Little does she know daughter Karvan is living there with Adele in a mobile home park. Karvan’s aware of Davis’s presence almost immediately. The town’s only got one entertainment hall, split between the family friendly and the adults only. Karvan sneaks over to look and happens to see Davis, but has no frame of reference to recognize her. Davis has made no effort to contact Karvan and, for a while, I’d forgotten they were going to be mother and daughter, because Davis is so blasé about being in this particular small town.

Well, she’s blasé because she has no idea. But when her car breaks down and she’s got to stay in the same mobile home park while it’s getting fixed up… it’s only a matter of time before she and Karvan cross paths. And then only a little more time before Adele shows up, telling Davis to stay away or else. Can Davis stay away? Ish. The plot perturbations to inform Karvan of her mystery parentage are rather protracted and basically reveal the utter pointlessness of one of the supporting cast members. High Tide’s plotting is particularly weird because the third act dumps significant supporting cast members, leaving their subplots either unresolved or passed off with a shrug and a line of exposition.

Based on how Armstrong sets up the film’s narrative distance in the first act, with the camera as an omniscient, objective third person, it could be fine. But the camera gets a whole lot less exploratory in the second act, especially once Armstrong settles on her system for conversation scenes. Establishing, close-up, alternate close-up, close-up, alternative close-up, maybe a tight medium shot of one person, then the other, then scene. Armstrong sticks closest to this formula with anything involving Davis, which means you rarely get to see her and Karvan on screen together. Instead there are just the reaction shots as they try to figure out their relationship, which ought to be some good scenes, based on how well Davis and Karvan do in other parts of the film… but the script’s not there. You wait the whole movie—well, after it’s revealed they’re really doing the one in 16.26 million chance of them running into each other—and then the pay-off is blah. It’s okay enough for Davis, but the film’s been gradually less and less her perspective and more her being a subject, but it’s terrible for Karvan. When Davis and Adele are fighting over her, she’s got all the agency of a paperweight.

Again, with that omniscient, objective third person camera Armstrong could get away with it because she’s just finding the image in these actions, but Armstrong has long since dropped it. Even for the terrible melodrama beat, it’s not like Armstrong’s got some beautifully visualized sequence with crappy music. It’s a boring (albeit pretty because ocean and beach and whatnot) visual and that crappy saxophone blaring.

For some of the second act, before it’s clear Davis doesn’t actually have anything going on besides the don’t-want-to-be a mom arc, it seems like High Tide would be better if she and Karvan’s stories were just juxtaposed. But they don’t end up having enough story. Davis’s most successful character relationship arc is with the mechanic (Mark Hembrow), who’s not even in it enough to get a name in the end credits. And Adele… she kind of gets more to do than either of them, but it’s just to burn runtime.

Good photography from Russell Boyd, fine editing from Nicholas Beauman. Sally Campbell’s production design is excellent.

Davis is good, Adele is all right, Karvan’s okay. Friels’s… fine. What’s interesting about Davis is apparently she picks “good” men, which isn’t really part of the story as it turns out. High Tide just needs a good rewrite. And a composer without a predilection for saxophones.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gillian Armstrong; written by Laura Jones; director of photography, Russell Boyd; edited by Nicholas Beauman; music by Peter Best; production designer, Sally Campbell; costume designer, Terry Ryan; produced by Sandra Levy; released by Filmpac Distribution.

Starring Judy Davis (Lilli), Claudia Karvan (Ally), Jan Adele (Bet), John Clayton (Col), Colin Friels (Mick), Frankie J. Holden (Lester), Toni Scanlan (Mary), Monica Trapaga (Tracey), ‘Cowboy’ Bob Purtell (Joe), Marc Aden Gray (Jason), Emily Stocker (Michelle), and Mark Hembrow (the mechanic).