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Dir: Ann Turner
What’s It All About?
There are a lot of layers at work here (in the accompanying interview, director Ann Turner talks about the films political themes) but for me Celia is primarily a film about childhood. The main character is Celia Carmichael, a nine year old girl (played by 12 year old Rebecca Smart) living outside Melbourne in the late 1950’s. Through her naive eyes we see political upheavals like the Red Scare and the Australian government’s wild rabbit cull, and confiscation of pet rabbits. As a child, Celia experiences all these things as inexplicable, violent, acts (especially when her beloved rabbit, Murgatroyd is taken away). She begins to see some adults as storybook monsters, and through this and an escalating feud with her cousin, begins to act out in troubling ways.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
There was, apparently, a UK VHS release, following what must have be a very limited cinematic run. Certainly the VHS seems to have been rare; rare enough that I’ve never seen one. What is most likely to have contributed to the film’s underseen status, besides the limited distribution, is a poor marketing campaign. Celia is an odd film, almost without genre, but the UK poster makes it look like a fairytale with a cute little girl being menaced by monsters, risking audience alienation when they actually see the film. The US release was worse, re-titled, over Ann Turner’s strenuous objections, Celia: Child of Terror, it was sold as a straight horror film. It’s a tough sell, but mis-selling it clearly didn’t help.
Why Should You See It?
For so many reasons, but for me the most compelling of all is Rebecca Smart’s astonishing performance as Celia. Though she was, relatively speaking, quite a bit older than her character, Smart looks absolutely convincing as the nine year old Celia, but that’s just the surface. What’s remarkable is the depth of her performance. mart is a pretty, innocent looking little girl, but there is also a hardness to her face in this performance, which hints at the things lying under the surface. She’s extremely good at contrasting the many different aspects of the character; the little girl who desperately wants a rabbit; the child seeking parental warmth outside her home (with the new neighbours, with whom she becomes close, but is forbidden to see when it is discovered that they are communists); the way she is both victim and villain in her relationship with her cousin. All of these thing’s Smart seems to bring an understanding beyond her years to, but without playing Celia as beyond her years.
She’s perhaps best in the film’s striking last twenty minutes, which I can’t give away here because I’d ruin the film, but suffice it to say that Smart and Turner go to some disturbing places with the character in the last reel, and that Smart’s calculating performance is chilling. Much of her performance, particularly as the film goes on, hinges on the difference between what’s coming out of Celia’s mouth, and what’s behind those huge, often blank eyes. It’s deeply complex and impressive work.
The adults are also good, with especially strong contributions from Nicholas Eadie as Celia’s loving, but very stern, Father and from Victoria Longley, whose magnetic performance as Alice Tanner (the Mother of the new family next door) contributes a great deal to Smart’s performance, because you believe that Celia, faced with her parents, would be drawn to this beautiful, vivacious, loving woman. Longley had an acclaimed stage career and worked steadily in film and TV but sadly died last year, aged just 47. On the evidence presented here that was a great loss.
I’d be fascinated to know whether Peter Jackson saw this film prior to making Heavenly Creatures, because the way that the film mixes fantasy and reality, the depth with which it explores the mindsets of its young characters and the direction of Celia all seem to anticipate Jackson’s film somewhat. For the most part Ann Turner presents the film in a very straightforward down to earth style. However, when the children are in their own world, be it at the quarry where they play, or, towards the end of the film, Celia’s warped point of view, some surreality often begins to intrude. Sometimes, as when Celia’s cousin and her friends catch and brand Murgatroyd, it is simply that Turner heightens the look of the film, making the lighting more nightmarish there to accentuate what Celia is going through. The most surreal aspects of the film are associated with Celia’s favourite storybook; The Hobyahs (apparently a real fairy tale, though I’d never heard it growing up). Celia has visions of Hobyahs; long toed, clawed monsters, she begins, in some of the film’s most striking sequences, to see people she identifies as ‘bad’ as these monsters. These visualisations of Celia’s internal world are brief, but they are stylishly rendered, and Turner uses them cleverly to allow us to understand how Celia sees the world, without bashing us around the head.
Celia is a strange film. I don’t quite know how to sum it up or to sell it to you. By the end the film has become truly unsettling (though a sense of creeping dread pervades the whole thing). If there is one thing that I can say with some degree of certainty it is that this film will be going around in your head for some time after you see it, once you look beyond the simple surface of the story there is much to explore in terms of the way the film engages with the politics of its time and place (I’ll leave analysis of that to people who know the background better than I do), but even in terms of the pure experience, its one unlike most you’ll have had with a movie. Personally I’d say that’s reason enough to see it all by itself.
How Can You See It?
There is an excellent UK DVD from Second Run. The print, approved by Ann Turner looks great, and there is an illuminating interview with Turner (a shame they couldn’t get Rebecca Smart on camera though). There doesn’t appear to be a Region 1 release. The Australian release has different extras, including and interview with Turner from the time of the film’s 1989 release.
If you are interested, you can get the UK DVD here (
Celia [DVD] ) and if you buy it from this link, you’ll be helping contribute to the site. Thanks!
For another (excellent) take on Celia, check out this article by my friend and fellow MultiMediaMouth contributor Michael Ewins at his website E-Film Blog
Next Week: HARDCORE (Stephen Walker, 2001)