With nods to Richard Linklater and Woody Allen, Wenham’s small budget first feature is cosmopolitan and compassionate
June 9, 2017
David Wenham’s feature-length directorial debut was conceived as a semi-improvisational experiment, shot in seven days from a script workshopped in three.
The quick turnaround time undoubtedly informed the energy of the film, which ebbs and flows with the élan of its actors – particularly lead stars Emily Barclay and Benedict Samuel, who play strangers sharing a night on the town in Sydney.
Was Wenham settling a late-night bet, from a mate daring him to whip up a film in a fortnight? The circumstances around Ellipsis’ cash-strapped and expeditious shoot are ultimately immaterial. Whether it took two weeks to make or three, or 20, or 50, the result is delightful: a high-spirited and humane dramedy with a sparkling joie de vivre and an infectious passion for people and their idiosyncrasies.
The central relationship is sort of romantic but mostly platonic, with Viv (Barclay) making it clear to Jasper (Samuel) early in the piece that she is engaged and soon to leave the country. This frees the screenwriters/workshoppers (Wenham, Barclay, Samuel and Gabrielle Wendelin) from expectations associated with conventional romances, though there is still a degree of will-they-or-won’t-they.
After literally bumping into each other on the street, Jasper accidentally breaking Viv’s phone, the pair visit bars, go to dinner, trek to the beach and walk in the park, small talk broken up with occasional profundities and a bon mot or two. Spanning a single evening, bookended with sunlight and transpiring mostly at night, comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy are inevitable.
Ellipsis is also Woody Allen-esque in its jazz-splashed, sightseeing, skyline and street-loving vibe, loosened up with a low-fi aesthetic. The small budget and chin-wagging characters feel a little like mumblecore by way of a travelogue. The naturalistic handheld cinematography of Simon Morris is well-suited to a film constantly engaged with motion, in one sense or another.
Wenham has declared the film a “love story” to Sydney. Its view of city life is both cosmopolitan (with plenty of diversity in the non-lead roles) and quaint. This is a CBD where evidently time-rich strangers mingle, pause to gaze at the colour of leaves, help return lost dogs and have long, tolerant conversations with whoever crosses their paths. These interactions still feel plausible, perhaps because Wenham, like his characters, invests considerable time and thought in the random people drifting in and out of frame.
Discovery of such things as the aforementioned dog, a huge moppy-haired thing resembling a puppet from a Jim Henson movie, might be a little … cute, in the manner of hipstery indie pics sidetracked by random quirk – like a goldfish in a Miranda July movie. The introduction of a supporting character detached from Viv and Jasper’s storyline throws the structure off a little – though these scenes, if digressive, still feel treasured.
As does, in fact, all of Ellipsis, which seems almost paradoxical given the concept of an ultra fast-paced shoot doesn’t immediately suggest a film that cares deeply about its contents. This is nevertheless the case. Wenham’s direction is tuned to human details: eyes, voices, body language. We expect veteran actors to understand these nuances more than most.
Core to the experience are thoroughly appealing performances from Barclay and Samuel. Like Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the Linklater films, they chip away at their characters in small measures, dramatic revelations spoken but not necessarily unpacked; words linger in the air. The limited timeline of the story constricts their range and adds a cautious element to their presence – a result of the audience just meeting these characters who likewise have just met each other.
Wenham, who previously directed a chapter of the 2013 anthology drama The Turning, constantly pairs human interaction with (for Sydneysiders, highly recognisable) locations. By doing so he demonstrates the simple but profound understanding that places have stories, and stories belong to places. Those places can be grand, like mountains underneath brilliant skylines. Or, as in Ellipsis, they can be sex shops or street corners; they can be patches of grass or junk-strewn streets.
If the actor-cum-director did indeed respond to a dare to make this, here’s hoping he doubles down. A film like Ellipsis every year? Yes please.