Three Blind Mice
director Matthew Newton
To begin with full disclosure: I adore John Cassavetes with the passion of one who spent some time over summer refreshing the reasons why, at a retrospective of his work. It follows that I’m a sucker for any film which is rooted in his philosophy towards film-making.
Enter Three Blind Mice. The work of a young man on a shoe-string with his friends in tow. He wrote, directed and acted in it. Sound familiar, Cassavetes fans? Newton ‘is proud to be classified as an independent filmmaker, and critical of a lot of films now that call themselves independent but aren’t.’ Cassavetes used to fund his genuinely independent movies with the money he made from mainstream film acting. [Interview in The Guardian] And Newton is quite right. ‘Indie’ is nothing more than a brand these days. A call to a certain type of customer. And the genuinely independent are few and far between. Nonetheless, we see a lot of them in Australia – lack of money and independence go together. Maybe Janis was talking about film makers when she sang that song.
The freedom this permits a director is inspiring to watch. This film could scarcely be more different from Bitter and Twisted, in which Newton played a role, both independently funded, both able to be themselves. And two incredibly worthwhile films result.
This, from Newton, might have come straight from Cassavetes’ mouth:
“I tried to write it so the dialogue is very natural, and every scene has multiple points of view,” he says.
“I didn’t want to make a hero-driven film, I wanted to make it multi-narrative in the sense that every character has their point of view and I wanted every character to treat the film like they’re the lead. I really wanted everyone to bring their own opinion and personality.” The Guardian
It’s a signal success. The dialogue is a fascinating combination of polished and impromptu, again in that Cassavetes mode, as is this: ‘…it was something of a guerilla production, filming at locations without proper permits. These locations show Sydney neighbourhoods that are not often seen on screen’, reminiscent of Gloria in particular.
Having said that, Newton has a classical education in films and one sees a passing homage to On The Town. But whereas that is a straightforward laugh a minute light comedy romance, Three Blind Mice is filmed in the shadows and nothing is predictable. More Cassavetes. Newton wants to lay bare how people are. The result is painful, exhilarating and sometimes gut-wrenching. The comedy is dark, sometimes sharply clever – like Jackie Weaver’s cameo lines, but it is strangely and brutally slapstick at times. The poker game and the scene at 2.30am – not to spoil it for those who seek it out are hilarious, but so black.
One viewer opined on IMBD that the film needed subtitles. Indeed, it was difficult enough for hardened Australians to pick up all the dialogue, let alone foreigners. Subtitles in the way Scottish shows in English sometimes have them may have been a good idea. And yet, although this was shown in film festivals around the world to acclaim, again Australia must hang its head in shame. It didn’t get a release here, even at so-called ‘independent’ cinemas. Eventually it got a few Friday nights at a cinema in Sydney.
I really want to burst into a foul-mouthed rant at that. It’s disgusting that such a wonderful movie as this, with a star-studded cast, could get treated this way. Matt Ravier on the now defunct indifilms.com.au wrote – and I reproduce in full what can be found via The Wayback Machine:
Matt Ravier reports from the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. Three Blind Mice is a confident and extremely promising debut for writer-director Matthew Newton and a treasure trove of local talent, both fresh and firmly established.
Apart from seeing him on stage in Tom Stoppard’s excellent Rock ‘n Roll, I’m not overly familiar with actor Matthew Newton’s work, nor that of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps if I were from around here I’d understand better why so many seemed to want them to fail (perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments?). Many Australians seem to have a love-hate relationship with success. Is it that local audiences find it hard to recompense the work of clever, over-privileged white boys from the Eastern Suburbs? Rumour has it that amongst the five jury members, it was the three foreigners who pushed for the film to be awarded a special mention…
I found this tightly scripted semi-improvisational drama to be engrossing and ultimately quite moving. Clearly inspired by John Cassavettes (by way perhaps of Andrew Bujalski?), the film takes an old fashioned premise – three marines hitting the town for one last night before being shipped off to war – and makes it feel fresh and authentic thanks to vibrant, off-the-cuff dialogue and excitingly raw performances.
Unfolding over the course of one emotional night, the film follows three Royal Australian Navy soldiers as they attempt to get laid, bid goodbye to their city and make some sense of their life before it is put at risk in the Gulf.
Matthew Newton, Ewen Leslie and Toby Schmitz are excellent as the three buddies, allowing their characters – the party animal, the sensitive guy and the dark horse – to come of age over only a few hours without asking the audience to suspend disbelief. They are served by superbly written set pieces which come alive with the unadulterated spontaneity of authentic-sounding dialogue.
These exchanges, which occasionally overlap, randomly explode in blisteringly funny moments of dark comedy. Newton tackles some difficult personal issues with the lightest of touches. In this respect, he adopts a resolutely Australian tone, never too careful in his insistence not to take things too seriously.
Australian journalist and festival programmer Shane Danielsen had this to say about local competition entries Three Blind Mice and The Square:
“Though markedly dissimilar in style, what these two films shared was a fascination, bordering almost upon the forensic, with what it meant to be a man, and to live and act in a male-dominated world (…). For some of us, though, they offered hope that, after more than a decade in which Australian cinema – at least in its international manifestations – became synonymous with camp, caricature and superficiality, there was a willingness on the part of filmmakers to once again engage with something resembling real life, and to address actual human emotions. With nary a sequin or red velvet curtain in sight.”
Beyond this statement’s dubious undertones, I disagree with the implication that the unmentioned films alluded to here, in all their camp, sequined superficiality, weren’t also addressing notions of Australian masculinity, and engaging, under cover of spectacle, with the “actual human emotions” of this so-called “real life”.
Three Blind Mice wouldn’t know what to do with a velvet curtain, concerned as it is with the unadorned immediacy of the here and now. It’s a film about men coming to terms with their masculinity, sure, but first and foremost it’s a film about boys trying to find out what kind of decisions they want to be making as adults.
In any case there’s no disputing that the male protagonists of Three Blind Mice are recognizably Australian, and not very different from the blokes you and I may know and hang out with down the pub. Newton has given his characters depth without giving up their boy-next-door authenticity, and he’s given them complexity without compromising on their blokey nature.
We should be thankful for the energy and talent of Matthew Newton and his friends. A trip on the international festival circuit, where this kind of cinema is often taken a little more seriously than by Sydney’s cultural commentators, might wipe that smug smile off their face, but in the meantime they should be celebrating. This is the kind of Australian cinema we should get excited about.
Review by Matt Ravier
Not one nomination for the AFI Awards of the year? So says Glenn Dunks in November 2008.
Three Blind Mice Wins Awards in Britain, AFI Members Continue to Embarrass Themselves, World Turns for Another Day, etc
And as an AFI member myself – alas, I am only allowed to vote for Best Film, Best Documentary and the short film categories – it really hurts me to quite blatantly mock the institution that I pay good hard-earned money for, but it still continues to boggle the mind that Matthew Newton’s astoundingly good Three Blind Mice didn’t get a single nomination for this year’s AFI Awards. Won’t it be embarassing when (and I really do hope it’s a matter of “when” not “if”) Three Blind Mice becomes an international festival hit and it didn’t get a single nomination here? Oh wait… what’s that…?
Silly me, turns out that’s already happening! I was so excited today to see that the film has won (via) the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at the London Film Festival. Shocking. A good movie (nay, a great movie) actually winning prizes. It’s times like that that remembering Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger and The Tender Hook scored nine AFI nominations between them really hurts. Newton’s film is sure to be remembered longer and more fondly than either of those films, yet because – one has to assume – Newton isn’t the most popular guy on the block these days he gets snubbed for movies that are nothing more than turgid dull-as-dishwater Mean Girls ripoffs.
The only solution I can think of is that Matthew Newton ditch Australia and head overseas to make any future products. It’s quite obvious that the “people who matter” don’t care for him and, at least, he would be appreciated overseas. Isn’t that the Australian thing to do anyway? And this time the media wouldn’t be able to persecute him for “ditching” Australia because, clearly, they ditched him a long time ago. And then, five or ten years in the future when people are scratching their heads as to where all the talent went from the Aussie film industry (or, hell, next year!) they can put the blame squarely at their own feet because they decided to dig for trash instead of taking the treasure that was staring them right in the face.
Also, in a much less mean-spirited but similarly-themed add-on, I must mention that Steve Jacobs’ upcoming Aussie film Disgrace won the same prize at the Toronto International Film Festival so things are perhaps actually looking on the up!
In August 2009 Glenn Dunks continued:
You won’t be getting much out of me today since I am still very sick – it’s going around, unfortunately – but I wanted to bring this article to your attention. It will only affect Australians, but it’s still a shameful indictment on the state of film distribution.
The matter at hand is the new Matthew Newton film Three Blind Mice will not even be receiving a release in Sydney, the film’s home.
IT HAS screened at 14 film festivals around the world, winning warm reviews and a critics’ award in London.
Yet when Matthew Newton’s feature film Three Blind Mice opens around Australia this month, it is unlikely to be shown in its home city of Sydney.
The distributor, John L. Simpson, said yesterday that the city’s arthouse cinemas had rejected Three Blind Mice as not commercial enough. ‘‘We’re not fooling ourselves – it’s not Titanic – but it’s an excellent film with a unique Australian voice,’’ he said.
“Excellent” is putting it mildly. It’s the best Aussie film of the year, yes even better than Samson & Delilah, so the raw deal this film keeps getting is both baffling, maddening and depressing. It screened as a part of the AFI screenings last year and was promptly snubbed in every category (for what? Unfinished Sky? No thank you!) and now it’s taken this long to even receive a release at all and now even that is in trouble. Such a shame. I really hope that eventually people do discover this movie and the immense talent within it. It’s a great and bold achievement, one that will sadly go unnoticed. I can only encourage everybody to see if it they notice it playing at a cinema near you. Hell, even if you have to travel a bit just go and see it!
Way down the track and Newton is in the news right now for stepping down as director of the movie Eva, written by him. His graceful statement accounting for this was made in August 2018:
“Yesterday I notified Jessica Chastain and the other producers on the film EVE that I will be stepping down as director. Since the announcement of this film, the responses, which are powerful and important, have not fallen on deaf ears. I am profoundly aware that I have a responsibility to lead where I have failed in the past. I can never undo the harm that I’ve caused the people I’ve cared about and I carry that shame and responsibility with me every day. Over the past eight years I have been working extensively with healthcare professionals to help me overcome my addiction and mental health illness. For the past six years I have lived a quiet and sober life. All I can do now is try to be a living amends and hopefully contribute to the positive change occurring in our industry.”
Not for the first time one wonders if the good motivations of this ‘movement’ have been lost to the social media bully syndrome. If this statement is true, it’s disgraceful that he is being forced to step down. It’s disgraceful that he gets no forgiveness, tolerance, opportunity to continue to make amends by doing what he does so well. If his statement is true, he deserves some credit, if not admiration, for being able to turn it around, and he could be a good example working in the industry, instead of being banished.
Reached for comment through his publicist, Newton said: “As I said in 2011, it is absolutely intolerable to harm women, it is intolerable to harm men, it is intolerable to harm anyone. I had done these things, and I utterly regret it, and I have to live with this responsibility every day. I had a severe problem with substance and alcohol abuse then and for almost six years now I have actively worked every single day, one day at a time, to remain sober and live a clean, upstanding life.” From early 2018
I sincerely hope this very talented person is not lost to the art of cinema. We will be the lesser for his absence.