the monkey's mask


Directed by: Samantha Lang
Written by: Anne Kennedy (from the poem-novel by Dorothy Porter)

If you are looking for a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat detective thriller then you are in the wrong place.

Even though The Monkey's Mask is ostensibly a murder mystery, the death that takes place isn't really the mystery that needs to be solved. Most of the conflict, character development and plot centres around the heroine, Jill Fitzpatrick (Susie Porter), and her struggle to maintain professionalism and focus while being assuaged from all sides by Diana (Kelly McGillis), who is nothing short of a sexual predator.

The detective plot is almost irrelevant. It serves to pull us from character to character and between scenes, but it isn't much more than a distraction. We pretty much know who killed the girl from the outset and we spend most of the film waiting for our detective heroine to catch up with us. Diana even coldly taunts Jill her on her blindness by commenting that she is a fabulous lover, but a mediocre detective. From what I saw, I found myself agreeing.

However, Jill's prowess as a detective really isn't the point. I found that it was her prowess as a human being that was more effectively coming under scrutiny. In Samantha Lang's moody drama, we see the ability of sex (I refuse to call it love) to totally blind a person to the truth. Diana becomes an overwhelming presence, more so because she remains so emotionally elusive. Jill wanders around in a world that is alien, being led astray by a woman who is not as she appears, trying to find secrets to a murder not even being very effectively covered up. In fact, it seems as if everyone but our detective knows who killed the girl, and they are just having fun playing cat and mouse with Jill to see how long she will run around in circles.

On a technical level though, The Monkey's Mask is a beautiful film; visually exciting and poetic. Dorothy Porter's original poem-novel was never going to be easy material to adapt for the screen. As you watch you can almost feel the screenwriter's struggle; how much poetry do I include? What needs to be said with a narrative feel? How can you get across an essentially roughneck character with little poise and grace using language that is both exquisite and articulate? This was the challenge of The Monkey's Mask. I loved the way this was handled. There was precisely the right balance of narrative and poetic dialogue, with the poetry reserved mainly for voiceovers from Jill's perspective.

Like all films that try to be "clever", this film is going to polarise viewer opinion. Like it or hate it, it's easy to appreciate Lang's meticulous attention to detail, in some ways reminiscent of Lisa Cholodenko's work in High Art. I was especially impressed with her handling of the sex scenes, with the sexual dominance shifting from one woman to the other as the story progressed and the tension heightened.

I was initially dubious about the casting of Kelly McGillis as Diana, but she grew on me and there is no doubt she played her lesbian scenes with commitment. Susie Porter as Jill was just the right combination of street smart, spunk and vulnerability to make the character appealing. Marton Csokas (who I always think of from Xena but who is building an awesome career) was also terrifically slimy as Nick, Diana's husband.

I'm torn as to whether or not reading the poem-novel first is a good or bad idea. I read it first, and it certainly contributed to my feeling that the poetry was every bit as important as the murder mystery. It also means I probably can't accurately judge how predictable the film was as a murder mystery since I already knew who the killer was. Other critics who have not read the source material found the lightness and transparency of the murder investigation distracting and annoying.

Whether you read the novel before or after seeing this film, just make sure you read it, because the film and the book may share themes, but they are vastly different experiences.

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