In 1997 when university student Anu Singh was arrested and tried for the murder of her devoted partner Joe, the story was front page news. Singh was found to have drugged him with Rohypnol laced coffee and then injected him with a lethal dose of heroin after a dinner party. Finally sentenced to the reduced charge of manslaughter via diminished responsibility by reasons of mental health, Singh served only four years for her crime. The crime and its resulting trial were so sensational that they spawned a best-selling nonfiction novel, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and now the story plays out for a new audience 19 years later on the big screen.
In his feature film debut, director and co-writer Sotiris Dounoukos adapts Helen Garner’s very successful novel and makes some interesting choices both in his writing and in his direction. Where Garner’s novel focused on the trial, witness accounts, and the fallout beyond conviction, Dounoukos takes his audience back to the beginning of a romance, his story then evolving chronologically, ultimately culminating in it’s tragic ending.
This approach to the content is an understandable one. Coverage of court proceedings surrounding the crime at the time had been significant and multiple news stories and “true-crime” dramatisations have abounded. And while it is fair and reasonable to attempt to tell this tale from the angle of love gone wrong, or even a community turning their backs on one of their own, as the director suggests, it appears that Dounoukos and his co-writer Matt Rubenstein have forgotten that almost two decades have passed the Australian public by, and that some more background information on characters would give any audience (not just those familiar with the story of Joe Cinque) the greatest opportunity of being able to appropriately empathise with either lead character.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation was one of the most sought after tickets at this years Melbourne International Film Festival, perhaps in part due to the sensational subject matter. In interviews and forums after all sessions of the film, Dounoukos went to great pains to explain to audiences that the focus of the film is intended to be less about Anu Singh’s crime and eventual conviction, but more about the fact that Cinque had a community of people surrounding him both socially and in his workplace, and no-one stepped in to prevent his death.
This intention does not completely translate on the screen. A significant amount of time in the film is dedicated to making sure the audience knows that Anu is to blame (and not just for her crime, every other negative thing that happens to either lead character is pinned on her), but does little to provide an explanation as to how she became so mentally fragile. Interestingly, a similar criticism was levelled at Garner’s book upon release, in that readers were unable to understand Singh’s motives. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to remediate this for the screen. The audience is unable to connect with Anu and as a result the story devolves into a tale of how sad and tragic the loss of Joe’s life was and still is. The lack of connection the audience is allowed to have with Anu becomes even more perplexing when factoring in that the director was a law student alongside Anu Singh at the time of the crime and was in the same graduating year as her.
It is important to note here that the performances by both lead actors, Maddie Naouri as Anu and Jerome Meyer as Joe are admirable, considering the content they have to work with. Maddie Naouri in particular does a good job of bringing a scarily quiet and pathological ‘broken-ness’ to Anu and Jerome Meyer manages to strike a balance between dead man walking and a loving partner desperate to help her. It’s just such a disappointment that the audience doesn’t ever get the chance to truly know these characters or to understand their motives.
The biggest problem with the choices Dounoukos has made with his content is this: Without context, background or character development the audience is unable to connect to these characterisations of real people. Even more so, being almost twenty years after the fact, it is likely that a portion of the audience for this film will not be privy to the history behind it. This is troubling, because what is left on the screen is a very sad story about a man, for whom it is difficult to feel true empathy because it’s impossible to understand why he’s there with Anu in the first place. Through no fault of his (or the actors) own, Joe becomes almost two dimensional in the shadow of the “big bad” Anu Singh and her wicked sidekick Madhavi Rao.
In closing, Joe Cinque’s Consolation somehow manages to do less for Joe Cinque than Helen Garner’s original treatment, and even that wasn’t considered to be definitive. Audience members who have a relationship with the content prior to viewing may take something home with them, but for new audiences and perhaps more essentially, international audiences, the film is unlikely to translate into anything meaningful.