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Perceptive, Moving Australian Drama

In twenty-two years, Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence has directed just three feature-length films. His first film, Bliss, an adaptation of Peter Carey's darkly satirical novel about contemporary Australian society, won major awards. After a fifteen-year drought, Lawrence adapted Andrew Bovell's play, "Speaking In Tongues", for the screen as Lantana, an Altmanesque, web-of-life drama, which then went on to win five awards, including Best Picture, at the 2001 AFI Awards. A half a decade later, Lawrence is back with his third film, Jindabyne, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story, "So Much Water So Close to Home".

Claire (Laura Linney), an American, lives in Jindabyne, New South Wales, Australia with her Irish-born husband, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), and their son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss). While Stewart runs a gas station/auto repair shop, Claire works in a pharmacy to help make ends meet. Stewart and his friends, Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), and Billy (Simon Stone), are excited to go on their annual fishing trip at a remote spot in the Snowy Mountains where they can spend some quality time with each other away from their respective spouses and girlfriends.

On the first day of the fishing trip, Stewart spots a woman's body tangled up in the branches on the other side of the river. Initially distraught, Stewart and the others mull over what to do. The men decide to remain through the weekend. When the men return to cell phone range two days later, they call the police. Their decision to go on with their fishing trip after discovering the body meets with disapproval and consternation from their wives, intrusive attention from the press, and accusations from the local aboriginal population of racism. While her marriage to Stewart slowly unravels, Claire takes it upon herself to help the victimís family and heal the fissures that threaten to tear Jindabyne apart.

Structurally, Jindabyne introduces the major and minor charactersí backstories, political and cultural beliefs, connections, conflicts, and tensions before sending Stewart and the others to their fishing trip near the midway point. If the first half focuses on revealing character through incidental detail, the second half pays off that accretion of detail by exploring how the men respond to the fallout from their decision to continue fishing and the corrosive effects this decision has on their spouses or lovers, and the white and aboriginal communities. That said, itís Claire, however, that emerges as the central figure in Jindabyne. Her quintessentially American beliefs about moral and ethical responsibility put her in conflict with her husband and, eventually, everyone else.

While Jindabyne (which was adapted in 1991 by Robert Altman as part of Short Cuts), draws elements from the mystery/thriller genre, it's more accurate to say that it keeps these elements shrouded in the background by choice. We meet the killer and the victim in the first scene and return to the killer only sporadically. We donít learn his motives or much about his background, but he hovers at the margins as a potential threat to the intrusive, inquisitive Claire.

If Jindabyne has any faults, itís certainly not the ensemble cast headlined by Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, as good here as they've ever been, but in Lawrence's abrupt ending that leaves at least two major questions frustratingly unresolved. One would have been fine, but two arenít, not when weíve come so far with these characters, as grounded in the real world as weíre likely to meet onscreen this year.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars