Australian Cinema Leaps Out of Its Slump With `Celia'

Story of 9-year-old blends realism, fancy. FILM: REVIEW

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AUSTRALIAN films became popular in the United States around a dozen years ago, and for good reason. At that time, every production from Down Under seemed to have been made with a sense of passion and purpose - be it a drama like ``The Devil's Playground,'' a comedy like ``The Getting of Wisdom,'' an offbeat thriller like ``The Last Wave,'' a children's movie like ``Storm Boy,'' or even a quiet character study like ``Sunday Too Far Away,'' which never reached commercial American theaters. These films also introduced some estimable talents, from directors like Phillip Noyce and Peter Weir to performers like Judy Davis and David Guliplil.

The wave of Australian movies eventually slowed to a trickle, however, as the stockpile of excellent pictures diminished and new films proved less than uniform in quality. The absence of first-rate Australian pictures has been broken only by Mr. Noyce's expertly shot ``Dead Calm'' in recent months, and even that melodrama is too dark and intense for some tastes.

THAT'S why I was particularly pleased to encounter a top-quality Australian film at the Berlin Film Festival a few months ago. In addition to the enjoyment provided by the movie itself, it served as a happy reminder of any film festival's highest function - to provide a showcase for works that don't have star names or big advertising budgets to launch them. The festival also introduced a highly promising new writer-director named Ann Turner.

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``Celia'' could be called conventional in its style, if your definition of conventional includes some startling flights of fancy intermingled with a realistic plot. The main character is a nine-year-old named Celia, and what's uncommon about her story is its success at weaving together a remarkable number of elements - from childlike play and fairy-tale fantasy to political turmoil and, in the end, an unsentimental confrontation with the myth of childhood innocence.

The setting is Melbourne in 1957. Celia lives with her mom and dad, whom she likes well enough, and her grandmother and pet rabbit, whom she adores. Her life is comfortably middle class, but it isn't placid, thanks to her vivid and sometimes troubled imagination, which takes off in unpredictable directions when it's been stimulated by books about goblins and monsters.

SHE has other problems, too, that are anything but imaginary. First her grandma dies. Then her father starts flirting with an attractive (and married) next-door neighbor. The neighbor and her husband are dedicated communists, moreover, which puts them at sharp odds with their intolerant community.

Celia is caught in the middle of all these conflicts. And her distress multiplies when the national government, fighting an environmental problem, declares war on rabbits - not bothering to exempt caged-in pets like Celia's, which is now marked for internment and possibly death.

This is a lot for a nine-year-old to handle. It's also a lot for a movie to handle, but writer-director Turner keeps the story flowing smoothly and effortlessly, rarely missing a beat as it swings from Celia's fantasies to her difficult dealings with the adult world. Rebecca Smart gives a knowing performance as the title character, and most of the grown-up cast members do equally convincing work.

Top credit goes to Ms. Turner, though, for the cleverness and consistency of both her screenplay and her directing. A former law student who has worked as a television camerawoman and a drama consultant to the Australian Film Commission, she is now a filmmaker of unmistakable talent. ``Celia'' is her first full-length movie, and it has already won the ``best fiction feature'' prize at the International Women's Film Festival held in France recently. Based on this effort, I plan to follow her career with great interest.

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