I was on a red-eye back to Sydney over the weekend, bleary-eyed from a few too many tasty beverages in the Qantas lounge. Ready to tuck into a fitful sleep, I couldn’t help perusing the movie selection after finding my seat and got snagged on a hot-ticket item in the classics. Dead Calm had me at the opening credits. I was in it to win it.
The film opens on a train pulling into a station as a dapper Sam Neill in Navy dress uniform disembarks for the Christmas holidays. Awaiting the arrival of someone special, he soon discovers that all is not well. His wife, played by a then unknown Nicole Kidman, was in a head-on collision that cost the life of their baby boy.
This is our final encounter with land as the film transplants our mourning couple on to a yacht in the middle of the open ocean. It’s Neill’s intention to bring her distraught wife back from the brink, to let her emotions run dry. When a black schooner happens upon the horizon however, their plans go topsy-turvy when a lone survivor (played by a charismatic Billy Zane) from the sinking wreck comes aboard.
The film has such a distinctive flavour with its shimmering visuals luring you in headfirst. It's a timeless masterpiece for the simple reason that it is an honest character study of humanity, an immersive look at the art of survival. Set entirely against the backdrop of the open ocean it pits Zane and Kidman together in a tense atmosphere you can cut with a knife.
It’s a haunting classic, a story that wouldn’t make the grade in the current climate. Directed by Phillip Noyce, an Australian icon, the film was his fifth feature and the first to capture an international audience. It’s success would bring the thirty-nine year old to Hollywood where he would go on to helm top-shelf projects like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.
The Australian thriller was adapted from a 1963 novel by Charles Williams who had originally licensed the rights to Orson Welles for a film adaptation that went unfinished. When the persistence of producer Tony Bill failed to convince Welles to sell, he enlisted Noyce by gifting him a copy of the book. Noyce subsequently garnered the interest of Terry Hayes (the eventual scribe) and George Miller who ended up producing under their banner Kennedy Miller after convincing a reluctant Oja Kodar, Welles’ partner, to sign over the rights.
Cowabunga Mr. Noyce. Thanks for the lurid nightmares.