TL;DR Joe Cinque’s Consolation is not a good movie, but then, it comes from imperfect source material.
Two years ago, Stephanie, myself and Friend of No Award Ashleigh went to see Helen Garner speak about her new book, This House of Grief, her account of the trial of a father for the murder of his children.
I went along because (a) it was free; (b) I have a love/hate relationship with true crime, in that I love reading it, then hate myself for loving it. I wanted to know how Garner reconciled the desire for Story with sensitivity to the victims and survivors.
As it turned out, this problem had not crossed Garner’s mind. She talked about attending the trial, being snubbed by the accused’s relatives, and how “flamboyant” (her word, also used repeatedly throughout the book) the judge was, and how much fun court is.
It was a shockingly tone deaf performance, and a picture of privilege in action. We dubbed Garner “Old White Lady Goes To Court” and have been entertained by her shenanigans since. Remember that time she struck a great blow against ageism by assaulting a teenager? Oh, how we laughed.
The book was as tone deaf as the presentation, especially in Garner’s disbelief that a father would kill his children, and her insistence that the bereaved mother had emasculated the accused by leaving him, being seen socially with another man, and having the temerity to drive one of the family cars around town. Garner’s reflexive support of the father was particularly galling because the book was published just a few months after Luke Batty was murdered by his father, propelling his mother Rosie Batty into the spotlight as a campaigner against domestic violence.
It wasn’t until after I’d read This House of Grief that I realised I had already read Garner, and had walked away with much the same impression. Back in 2004, I read Joe Cinque’s Consolation, her account of the trial of Anu Singh for the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. It was a fascinating case, mostly because lots of people in their circle of friends knew she was planning to harm either Joe, herself or both, and no one said, “Um, hey, Anu, that is maybe a bad thing to do, you know, objectively.”
I don’t remember much about the book, but what stuck with me was Garner’s hostility to Singh and her co-accused, another Indian-Australian woman, and her odd preoccupation with Singh’s “exotic beauty”. I’ve since learned that Garner is one of those second-wavers whose feminism is defined largely by an active dislike of younger women, particularly when they’re not white and don’t know their place.
Clearly, when we heard that Joe Cinque’s Consolation had been adapted into a film, we had to go. Old White Lady Goes To The Movies!
I went expecting some good hate-watching fun, but I was also hoping that, stripped of Garner’s POV, we could get the story of Singh and Cinque without random racist digressions.
And we did. What we did not get was, you know, a good movie.
This isn’t the fault of the cast, who are all quite good. Jerome Meyer is likeable and solid as Cinque, who by all accounts was a good guy. Maggie Naouri is compelling as Singh — although she is considerably lighter than the real Singh, don’t think I didn’t notice that, guys — portraying her as a woman struggling with profound mental illness. The supporting cast are all fine, if unremarkable.
The problem is the script, which is either unable or unwilling to explore the motives of anyone but Singh — and we know why she murdered Cinque: she was mentally ill, possibly dissociating, and, according to the court, in a state of diminished capacity. (She ultimately served four years for manslaughter.) More interesting is why her best friend, Madhavi Rao, was so willing to assist her at every step of the way, from testing out heroin to finding and driving guests to Singh’s two “farewell” dinner parties, and why so many other people knew about Singh’s various plans and did nothing.
None of that is explored, and so the story becomes increasingly ludicrous. With only a few changes in editing, it would be a brilliant black comedy — and, I’m sorry to say, I wasn’t the only audience member laughing. (I mean, I had a good time, but the director was right there in the room, it must have been awkward for him.)
But the book was written to get the justice for Cinque which Garner, and his family, felt he was denied by the courts — hence the title. It shouldn’t be funny, or half-arsed. It should know whether it wants to be a slow-burn thriller, a piece of 90s nostalgia or a commentary on the cultural bleakness of Canberra. It should be good.
As an example of its ineptness: we are not supposed to sympathise with Anu Singh, but the very first scene — her call for an ambulance, in which she slows them down by dithering and giving the wrong address — the triple zero operator (male) is so rude, patronising and dismissive that I was instantly on her side. And that set the tone for a movie where, a lot of the time, I was nodding along with Singh: yes, her actions were reprehensible, but I could identify with her fear and anxiety.
And that left me feeling sorry for her — for the real Anu Singh — who has been convicted, did her time, took responsibility, and now lives a quiet life working with women in the criminal justice system.
On the other hand … I just put the book on hold at the library. Because I want to know more about why all the others involved — especially Rao, against whom all charges were dismissed — were able to escape the consequences of their actions/lack thereof, and the only person telling that story is Garner. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more this time? Maybe I’ll hate it and share the pain via livetweeting?