I’ll cry if I want to – Birthday review

Birthday – Starring Natalie Eleftheriadis, Kestie Morassi and Ra Chapman. Directed by James Harkness. By Simon Miraudo.

What is it with Australian filmmakers and the sex trade? This year alone, we’ve seen the inert and impenetrable Sleeping Beauty, the rollicking genre flick X, and now, we have James Harkness’ adaptation of his controversial stage play of the same name, Birthday. It wouldn’t even be accurate to call 2011 a particularly sex-mad year; take a cursory glimpse at the past decade in local film and television and you’ll notice a fair few examples throughout. Although we can’t explain Aussie writers and directors’ predilection for prostitution-centric projects, we can consider how each portrays the industry. Sleeping Beauty offered us a puzzling glimpse at a self-destructive and alienating girl who subjected herself to unspeakable abuse for money. And in X, a high-end call girl and a teenage streetwalker team up in a futile attempt to escape a world that would make the bowels of hell seem a lovely holiday destination by comparison.

Birthday takes the audience on no such nightmarish trip. In it, we spend one day with bday girl and prostitute M (Natalie Eleftheriadis), her colleagues Lily (Kestie Morassi) and Cindy (Ra Chapman), as well as a couple of her despairing, lovelorn clients, Father Phillip (Travis McMahon) and Joey (Richard Wilson). All five characters are caught in something of a downward spiral; their only respite coming from conversations shared with one another at Madam Scarlet’s (Chantal Countouri) brothel. Despite writer/director Harkness’ fondness for curse words, the interactions are overwhelmingly earnest and sweet, and reveal that all anyone really needs is love (religion, meanwhile, is revealed to be something of a poisoned chalice). These revelations flirt dangerously close to being cloying and trite, but the cast – specifically the trio of lead actresses – make it work. Wilson, as the ultra-nervy and constantly-throat-clearing Joey, is a little too fidgety and mannered, but he manages to rein it in during his climactic – and truly affecting – final scene with Eleftheriadis. There are a couple of questionable directorial choices (notably the odd, ghost-like fading-out of characters within a scene), and the script feels a little overwritten at times (a pitfall for any stage-to-screen transition), but ultimately Birthday is a nicely performed drama that offers a genuinely fresh take on a tired subject.

3/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Birthday opened the CinefestOz Film Festival. It does not yet have a wide Australian release date.

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