The opening moments of Ben Lawrence’s Hearts & Bones feature Daniel Fisher (Hugo Weaving), a worse-for-wear war photographer, in the midst of a ice cold night in the Iraqi countryside, being handed another grim opportunity to snatch another’s suffering for his own stressed-out satisfaction.
Poking around in the horrid aftermath of a brutal in-car slaying that has left its two adult occupants dead, Fisher never refrains from wielding his camera to capture the residual despair, until a hushed murmur briefly reignites his guarded benevolence; a young girl, tucked away in the front seat, fleetingly emerges, but frightened by the foreign man brandishing an obsidian object, jumps and runs into a neighbouring landmine – not before the stoic shutterbug manages to capture her visage before it has vanished forever.
The Click of a Camera
The morals stirred up in this confronting opening sequence set the stage for Ben Lawrence and Beatrix Christian‘s soulful screenplay, a suburban drama where the fissuring echoes of war fracture the lives of those trying to outrun their own respective traumas.
Channeling the spirit of Peter Weir – where rational men are forced into irrational situations – but without his trademark mystical fringes, Hearts & Bones owes itself more to the work of European photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose postulation on “the Decisive Moment” was defined by the artist himself as being able to “in a fraction of a second, [capture] the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.”, an ideology that practically frames Fisher’s entire method to his madness.
After his shocking roadside confrontation, we see Daniel Fisher return to his Western Sydney apartment, a space as chaotic and dishevelled as its provisional occupant. A frustrated fight with the washing machine is disturbed by his partner, former ballet teacher Josie Avril (Hayley McElhinney), seemingly the one single element of stability within his turbulent lifestyle.
Just as Fisher’s life works are to be celebrated at an upcoming museum exhibition, a Sudanese refugee Sebastian Ahmed (newcomer Andrew Luri) reaches out to the thorny photographer with a difficult request; to omit all the pictures Fisher took of Ahmed’s South Sudanese village, where a cruel massacre took the life of his entire family. While the appeal is promptly rebuffed, a curiosity galvanises within Fisher, who wishes to learn more about Ahmed’s history and his present way of life.
When the Sudanese taxi driver introduces him to his private choir group that doubles as a reassuring therapy congregation, the hardened war photographer must confront the ethical dilemma that his work, one comprised of hundreds of ‘decisive moments’ pieced from global tragedies, suspended the tragedies of real human beings, not mere subjects.
No Easy Way Out
Despite the abundance of questions that this film raises, it never offers easy answers or facile solutions to any of the character’s internal conflicts, each member of the small cast are pragmatically complicated but never broadly sketched. As we see glimpses and references to Fisher’s past work, we begin to piece together the traumatic experiences and storied history that has made Fisher the man he is – an expert in his craft, but without the ability to be openly compassionate – while we learn that his masculine hang-ups are ones not experienced alone, as he steadily learns from his recurring choir visits.
Hugh Miller’s history of shooting documentaries, including Lawrence’s feature debut Ghosthunter, lends Hearts & Bones’ blue-tinted visuals an authentic quality, capturing the culturally diverse inner-workings of the Western Sydney suburbs with a true grit and genuine rawness which grounds these colliding characters into a realistic realm, rendering their moral quandaries into practical representations of real-life issues.
Despite being comprised of thousands of images rather than a singular one, Lawrence’s somber staging of events, especially when revelations regarding Ahmed’s past come to light as the two men’s friendship matures, is instinctively reminiscent of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s trademark approach to street photography: being able to accurately reflect an event or situation with just one arresting image.
This attitude is expounded in the film’s optimistic denouement, where Ahmed’s choir chorus harmonizes their own version of Talking Head‘s “Road To Nowhere”, overlaid with a poignant photo montage of the real-life struggles of modern refugees, which closes this quiet suburban tale with a persuasive sense of grace and elegance.
Hearts & Bones: Conclusion
Ben Lawrence’s Hearts & Bones avoids the predictable rote virtues of the typical Hollywood message picture, the natural friendships that occur are an effective counterweight to the considerable cheesy American equivalents like Green Book or The Best of Enemies. Hugo Weaving brings his naturally anchoring presence to this picture, bolstered by a terrific supporting cast which mixes newcomers and familiar Australian talent, who each define their finely drawn characters with unspoken but clear affronts to the heavy situations at play.
With the film being one of many bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to digital – but one of the first wholly Australian titles to do it – let’s hope that those at home make time for this dignified drama.
Hearts and Bones will be released on all major digital platforms (iTunes, Google Play/YouTube, Telstra, Fetch TV, Sony Playstation etc) in Australia on May 6.
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