Perfect Strangers - Review 13

8 February 2004
by Nick Paris

While everybody's having a whale of a time with New Zealand cinema one hopes that Gaylene Preston's 'PERFECT STRANGERS' won't slip under the radar in the box office.

Bristling with confidence this carefully engineered psychodrama delivers all the necessary ingredients to keep the audience attentive from first frame till last.

Returning to New Zealand's 'cinema of unease' Preston provides some welcome relief from more charted territory that has dominated the local industry lately. In fact this is Sam Neill's first local feature since Campion's 'PIANO' indicating his willingness to return to the wider arc of acting.

Rachael Blake who's scintillating turn in the excellent 'LANTANA' and Joel Tobeck (MEMORY AND DESIRE) round off a more than capable cast to compliment Preston's antithesis to genre film making .

In the beginning all starts within boundaries with our bored, listless waitress Melanie whose flirtatious glances attract handsome stranger (Neill). Both hit the rustic docks of Greymouth well warmed with plonk and share the small talk within the bowels of the stranger's boat. Melanie passes out and awakes in pitch black darkness to the pitch and roll (a genuinely scary moment) of the 'Dauntless' well on the way to a shack on a remote island.

Kidnapped and worried by the stranger's irrational behaviour from romance to total possessiveness Melanie battles this nightmare and fixes this Mephisto once and for all ending in a well staged storm sequence (thanks Weta!), but not before key narrative tempts you into dropping convention and embracing role reversal, a clever about face that Preston uses wisely.

Blake here swings her empowered performance like a pendulum,' she doesn't like nature', a self confessed landlubber she transcends different reality 'states' with the confident swagger that reminds me of Pam Grier's Blaxploitation era features. One can only be refreshingly ecstatic by Preston's mould of a female protagonist long overdue (forget Lara Croft!!) in cinema today.

Alun Bollinger's seductive camerawork right in his own backyard (Reefton, Punakaiki) perfectly captures the essence of 'PERFECT STRANGERS' In misty beaches, the unforgiving ocean and the trill of avian habitat in what the director rightfully calls the 'fourth character'.

Joyfully ritualistic (see APARTMENT ZERO and CUL de SAC) this cat and mouse game and tantric tale combines many filmic nuances and homage's and trumpets Prestons best work to date.