Movie review: The Weight of Elephants

By Peter Calder

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Demos Murphy plays alienated youngster Adrian in The Weight of Elephants.
Demos Murphy plays alienated youngster Adrian in The Weight of Elephants.

The alienated youngster struggling to understand the adult world is a recurring motif in our cinema - and, for that matter, literature.

Films, from The God Boy, Vigil and The End of the Golden Weather to Whale Rider and The Strength of Water have explored the trope, and delivered some indelible child performances along the way.

The debut feature by Dunedin-born 32-year-old Borgman, who has made seven short films in Denmark, certainly earns a place in that list, but the film as a whole is somewhat less than the sum of its excellent parts.

His screenplay is described as being "inspired by" Australian Sonya Hartnett's 2002 novel Of a Boy, although it's closer to a conventional adaptation, with a significant change that removes the Gothic chill. The problematic result is that it has become a film without an ending.

Murphy plays 11-year-old Adrian, who was abandoned by his mother for reasons that emerge only slowly.

His dull and gloomy home life with his careworn gran (Wilkin) and his wildly bipolar uncle Rory (Sunderland), is splendidly evoked in dark and shadowy interiors, and in his wider world mateship is fraught with the dangers of betrayal and shame.

The shadow stretching across the story is the abduction of three children, depicted in a slo-mo, poetic prologue rich in Terrence Malick touches.

Adrian becomes convinced that the kids who move into a house next door are those who were abducted and, as he befriends the eldest, Nicole (Cottrell), the few fragile certainties of his life begin to collapse around him.

Borgman and the Swedish director of photography, Sophia Olsson, have captured the kids' world superbly: the contrast between Adrian's hard-edged interactions with his mates and the sunlit, soft-focused dreamtime he occupies with Nicole is extremely effective. And the main performances are excellent, even heartwrenching at times.

But in the end, it is less a story than a statement of mood: it's chock-full of story elements and set pieces but without a narrative arc. More than a few lines (and actions) are improbable or unexplained. And by circling the mystery it establishes in the opening minutes without ever alighting on it, it remains - like its obscure title - puzzling and frustrating.

Stars: 3.5/5
Cast: Demos Murphy, Matthew Sunderland, Catherine Wilkin, Angelina Cottrell
Director: Daniel Joseph Borgman
Running time: 87 mins
Rating: M (content may disturb)
Verdict: Less than the sum of its excellent parts

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