Tom Augustine finds himself moved by Bellbird, a quiet NZ film which makes a big impact
Many New Zealand films of recent years fulfill a certain archetype - intensely rural, low-key, mildly dramatic stories about good-natured folk navigating classically Kiwi conflicts. Think Boy or The Dark Horse or Daffodils or Mahana.
In modern terms, it's the closest we have to a recurring cliche, regardless of the quality of said films (for my money Boy and The Dark Horse number among some of the best films this country has produced in the last 20 years). The new Kiwi film out in cinemas this week, Bellbird (dir. Hamish Bennett, rated M) , fits comfortably within this mould. It is also perhaps the best example of the form the country has produced in many years.
Auckland film-maker Bennett's wonderful short, Ross and Beth, on which this film is based, landed a few years back - a heartfelt, deeply empathetic exploration of a crusty rural New Zealand farmer learning to open himself up again after the loss of his beloved wife. Bellbird expands on this, deepening the lives of the central characters and developing their world and backstory in ways subtle and well-executed.
Following the death of Beth (Annie Whittle, making a big impression with a relatively small amount of screen time), Ross (Marshall Napier, who's excellent) initially retreats aggressively into his good-old-bloke ways, making decades of stereotypes about emotionally closed-off Greatest Generation middle New Zealand men into flesh. The untimely death comes much to the detriment of the small community Beth amassed around her, including the couple's gentle-hearted son Bruce (Cohen Holloway, in an effective departure from the comedic roles he is better known for).
Bennett is clearly interested in the ways in which classic New Zealand tropes of masculinity are ill-equipped to dealing with grief and, to a larger extent, healthy emotional wellbeing. His approach here is so feather-light and observational as to almost be revelatory. Bennett uses the familiar imagery of this kind of story - the farm, the cows, the rural locales - to quietly enrapture the viewer with carefully wrought performances and a patient, methodical directorial style.
As with Ross and Beth, it's genuinely remarkable how well it works, Bennett seemingly finding new ways to play notes I had long ago dismissed as exhaustingly familiar in the New Zealand film landscape.
There's a relaxed nature to Bellbird - the sense that it's all good, that none of this is too big a deal, and whatever emotional growth that happens will come with time - representing the apotheosis of a particularly Kiwi mindset. Bennett's truly excellent cast (also including Rachel House and newcomer Kahukura Retimana) employ an easygoing humour to great effect - there's a shared warmth within the community Bellbird forms, where almost everyone feels fleshed and human. Bennett has crafted a tender, moving little gem of a film, making a fresh spin on one of New Zealand's most well-worn avenues of storytelling.
Rating: Four and a half stars.