No Award goes to the movies: Joe Cinque’s Consolation

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?

Stay tuned.

15 thoughts on “No Award goes to the movies: Joe Cinque’s Consolation

  1. Ah, Helen Garner. I remember picking up The First Stone at a Vinnies and thinking that it sounded great, and then slowly realising as I got through how utterly wrong I was… I read this book as well in high school, but can’t remember enough to comment. I’m not surprised by your thoughts though.

    1. Yes! I’m always picking up The First Stone (weird, how often it turns up in secondhand stores) and think, “Gosh, this looks interesting,” before I remember it has about the same relation to the truth as a Donald Trump speech as related by Tumblr.

      1. It’s kind of worth reading just so you can read Bodyjamming afterwards, which was a whole book in response and is very good. The thing that pissed me off the most was Gardner’s fundamental inability to understand the power difference between a white male head of a college and his twenty-year-old college students. Like your comment on the fixation on ‘exotic beauty’, in the first stone it was all about the girls’ ‘sexual power’. Ugh.

        1. I didn’t know that book existed! I might check it out. Without reading The First Stone, because, ugh.

          I feel like Garner must have at least subconsciously recognised the power imbalance between the students and the head of college, because she had to change the facts to correct it.

          1. Gloria

            NOTE FROM LIZ: The comment below comes with a fake email address and shares an IP address with “Theodore Millon”, who ALSO has a fake email address. It’s clearly a rather sad attempt at trolling, so don’t bother engaging. I’m just leaving the two comments up here for posterity.

            Don’t bother reading Bodyjsmming, it is one of the nastiest books ever released. Garner’s mistake was to be ignorant of the level of vitriol directed at her by feminists who could not even contemplate an alternative view. Something she is still paying for today. Remember the subtitle of The First Stone was “some questions about sex and power”. Apparently even asking questions about sex and power is frowned upon, let alone taking a non-feminist view

  2. I have to admit, I tend to find Helen Garner to be a good example of the sort of second-wave feminist I love to cordially loathe, because she, like so many of the second wave feminists out there, tends to embody the Boomer Entitlement mindset down to the bone. There’s this insistence that what she thinks, and what people like her think, and what people her age think, should always be the most important topics out there, and the only thing that anyone else considers. A similar example is Germaine Greer (who, I note, is now getting very interested in the feminist issues relating to age care as she heads into her late sixties and early seventies… funny how the issues of cultural sexism and low wage rates related to caring professions were never all that important to her prior to now). Very much triple-W feminism (the sort of feminism which is only interested in the concerns of wealthy white women), and of course they plume themselves on their successes because they had those same wealthy white women behind them while those concerns were of interest. Once the wealthy white women of their generation have all their problems solved, well, everyone else can go hang.

    (Yeah, I have Opinions about this sort of thing).

    1. Yeah, that’s exactly the sort of feminist Garner is, and it really makes me angry that she’s uncritically accepted as a Great Feminist Intellectual.

      1. Again, WWW feminism tends to breed ’em – because of course the people who address issues which are solely the concerns of Wealthy White Women are Great Feminist Intellectuals (like Ms Garner and Ms Greer) whereas people who deal with issues which are relevant to women who aren’t wealthy, or aren’t white, aren’t Real Feminist Thinkers at all. (Because if they were Real Feminist Thinkers, they’d be dealing with issues which are important to Wealthy White Women, wouldn’t they?)

        I tend to find some of the better actual feminism out there these days is the intersectional stuff. Intersectional feminists at least don’t demand you have to be X shade on the paint catalogue in order to play, or have Y dollars in the bank, or meet beauty standards Z, Q and sigma pi in order to be considered Properly Female.

        (I have to admit, I tend to get very annoyed with the sort of WWW feminist who appears to believe all Real Women are Conventionally Attractive To Men, and if you aren’t Conventionally Attractive To Men, then you’re not a Real Woman. This is, admittedly, because I’m not conventionally attractive to men – I’m one of those women who shows up on the majority of masculine radars as “ambulatory rock” or “strangely mobile furnishing” or something. So no, I’ve never really experienced the terrible trial that is “an excess of inappropriate masculine attention”. Instead, I get rather the reverse).

  3. Kat

    Interesting read. I’ve thankfully only heard of Helen Garner in passing. Interesting that she seems to be more concerned with the men.

  4. Theodore Millon

    NOTE FROM LIZ: The comment below comes with a fake email address and shares an IP address with “Gloria”, who ALSO has a fake email address. It’s clearly a rather sad attempt at trolling, so don’t bother engaging. I’m just leaving the two comments up here for posterity.

    You feel sorry for a murderer! Seriously? Well that just about sums up the poor quality of this review. Singh was able to get away with murder because mummy and daddy were doctors, she came from a privileged background and could pay top money for lawyers, psychiatrists to help her case. If she came from a poor background, she would be still in jail. She is bad in the “mad/bad/sad” trichotomy of mental health diagnoses. She most likely has personality disorders in the “dramatic cluster” (cluster B) and these people suck gullible people into their world views. Do you feel had?

  5. Interesting review. Nice to see some independent thought about the book. It’s easy for readers to forget that a book in a “true crime” section not meaning it’s “true story”. Garner’s claims about and focus on Anu’s sexuality was puzzling. Her approach I think was to create an ideal offender and ideal victim. It completely ignored any information about the sentence and the evidence of Anu’s mental state at the time. There are countless people and lobby groups screaming for mental health issues and awareness . I guess it depends of who’s health it is. There is a judgement online I would recommend you read. Search R v Singh

  6. Pingback: Liz liveblogs Joe Cinque’s Consolation

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