The distinctive, evocative writing of Tim Winton is at its best in the 2005 collection of 17 loosely linked short stories that inspired this ambitious project. The tales of lives by turns beleaguered and broken are all set in the coastal small-town Western Australia that is Winton's literary bailiwick, and they are suffused with a sense of longing and melancholy that, miraculously, survives the adaptation process, even though the 17 short films are so strikingly different in style.

In the press notes, Winton compares writing the collection to dragging a bike from "a dark and crowded shed ... I set out with the notion of extracting one set of wheels and handlebars, but I was soon contending with a snarl of greasy machines rattling way back into the shadows, each snagged into the next".

It's an observation that might have seemed daunting to anyone proposing an adaptation but Robert Connolly, the director of Balibo and The Bank, who masterminded the enterprise, was fascinated by what he describes as "an innovative adrenalin rush of a read, a cryptic jigsaw puzzle of a book that continues to reveal its heart-breaking secrets with each read".

His approach was to invite people whose work he admired - in several cases actors take directing duties - to interpret a chapter each. No style choices would be enforced; in particular, it would not matter that the six recurring characters were played by different actors in different chapters; Vic Lang, who appears at various ages in more than half the stories, changes hair colour and even race.

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The result is a three-hour package with interval, a glossy programme and a $25 ticket price that can reasonably be described as an event. Connolly says he sought to give the viewer "a similar experience to entering an art gallery, allowing a personal response to the many unique threads and connections without losing the value of experiencing each individual work and the artist behind it."

It's a noble aim and it doesn't detract from it to say that, like most art gallery shows, the film has some parts that work better than others. Individual episodes enthral, but the work as a whole stumbles somewhat under the weight of its overarching concept.

Its bold, even visionary, intention is to celebrate a diversity of approach but Winton's story cycle works precisely because of its stylistic homogeneity and the absence of an overall guiding hand is keenly felt in the film version.

Those who have read the stories and those who haven't will surely experience the film versions differently, since some take more liberties than others. The opening Big World, for example, about high school dropouts heading north in a Kombi, disappoints by laying a voiceover on top of literal-minded visuals; by contrast Immunity, in which a girl on a school bus plucks up the courage to sit next to a boy she admires, is given an athletic modern-dance interpretation by a circus troupe; most strikingly, the show begins with a sand animation accompanied by a recitation from T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday with its apposite opening line "Because I do not hope to turn again".

I suspect that my allegiance to the author made me resistant to the less orthodox approaches, but the ones that play it straighter impress a lot: Byrne dazzles in the title story as a trailer-park solo mum with a thug of a boyfriend; Blanchett and Robyn Nevin shine a ray of light in the playfully named Reunion, about an amusing case of mistaken identity; Mirrah Foulkes is aptly pretty and dangerous as a recovering addict making contact with her ex in Small Mercies.

But it's hard not to feel that the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Winton himself, whose comments on the finished film have been notable for their indirectness, has praised the project as "a testament to the nerve and brio of our film culture". No one could disagree with that, but to say more would be to risk overstating its virtues.

Stars: 3.5/5
Cast: Rose Byrne, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and many others
Directors: Warwick Thornton, Robert Connolly, David Wenham and many others
Rating: R16 (sex scenes, violence, drug use and offensive language).
Verdict: Less than the sum of some excellent parts.

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- TimeOut

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