I went to see A Month of Sundays, Mathew Saville’s new Australian film, expecting a comedy about real-estate agents. It was the impression I’d gained from a careless reading of publicity handouts and other usually unreliable sources. And sure enough, the film has some witty lines and one or two moments of gentle satire at the expense of the real-estate profession. But Saville’s film isn’t really a comedy – unless you get your laughs watching lonely old widows coping on their own, grieving teenage boys pining for parental love, divorced husbands pining for lost wives, and other unhappy souls.
All that said, it’s a wonderfully satisfying film – subtle, poignant, and yes, rather funny. As Malcolm Turnbull would have it, this is a most exciting time to be an Australian filmmaker. The past year has given us a string of acclaimed box-office successes from The Dressmaker, Last Cab to Darwin and Mad Max: Fury Road, and I put A Month of Sundays in the same company. Among its chief attractions is Anthony LaPaglia, in top form as Frank Mollard, a hot-shot real-estate salesman whose facial expressions range all the way from the merely glum to the seriously morose. Why does everyone in the film look so miserable? Could it be that house prices are in free-fall as a result of Labor’s policies on negative gearing? Has Bill Shorten won the election? Is this the end of the world?
I’m happy to report that A Month of Sundays isn’t another post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy. We’re in some well-to-do patch of real-life suburban Adelaide, where the movie was shot. It opens with Frank brooding in an empty house waiting for buyers to turn up for a pre-sale inspection. A few potential customers duly troop through soulless, bare-walled rooms with empty bookshelves and uncarpeted floors before we cut to the sale itself. Someone gives a hilarious imitation of a house-auctioneer in fully rhetorical flight, and we can understand why the real-estate industry thrives so cheerfully on snobbery and greed.
One unlucky bidder at the auction is angry because the house is sold for much more than the price Frank had told him to expect. Understated price estimates are a well-known tactic to attract bidders, and this guy is convinced that he has been gently conned (which he probably has been). Frank mumbles some vague excuses, then along comes Phillip (John Clarke), the agency’s hyper-cynical, smooth-talking boss, who placates the unhappy guy with a few practised lines of flattery and bullshit. Later, walking across a lawn together, Frank and Phillip execute some deftly choreographed dance steps to dodge the spray from a revolving sprinkler. And with moments like these you could almost call the film a comedy.
But the mood soon changes. Alone at home one day, watching his ex-wife Wendy (Justine Clarke) perform in a TV medical soap, Frank takes a call on his phone. It’s his mother on the line – or at least, it sounds like his mother. But hang on, Frank’s mother has died only a few months ago – so if A Month of Sundays isn’t a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy, is it a supernatural psychic melodrama, in which voices call from the other side? Well, no. Frank is having another of his dreamy, moody spells – the call is a wrong number, the caller turns out to be Sarah (Julia Blake), and Frank finds himself drawn to her because she reminds him of his mother. They begin some sort of relationship – consisting mainly of genteel afternoon-tea parties at Sarah’s house, with plenty of long silences, meaningful stares and gathering clouds of sorrow. On the edges of the story are Frank’s estranged teenaged son Frank Junior (Indiana Crowther), who blames Frank for everything but craves his affection, and Phillip’s demented dad (Wayne Anthony), who lives in a nursing home, revisiting long-lost memories of his wartime experiences.
Like Ray Lawrence, the Australian director he most resembles, Saville has made only a handful of films, all richly distinguished. I praised his remarkable debut feature Noise in 2007; he followed it with the off-beat police drama Felony, with its layers of moral ambiguity. A Month of Sundays is his third film – his most subtle, elusive and mysterious, and perhaps his best. There are first-rate performances from everyone, the pace is slow at times, but the mood relentlessly gripping. And another funny touch – the soundtrack is garnished with Frank’s voice-over ruminations, ads for houses he’s visiting or selling, crafted in the real-estate-speak that comes so naturally to him: “North-facing garden … close to shops, schools and public transport … untouched period charm … leafy, tree-lined street in sought-after location…” Any reservations I have about the film – those overly dim interiors, the subdued voices and oddly muffled lines of dialogue – would be readily dealt with by Frank in one of his favourite phrases: “Scope for further development.” But very little further development is needed. The film is a gem, and I wouldn’t touch a frame of it.
A Month of Sundays, rated PG, is in limited national release.
Rated four stars.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.