The Rehearsal is a courageous, controversial and ambitious work, well-suited to a film festival setting, and sure to provoke lively and perhaps heated post-viewing discussion.
Going by the divided responses of reviewers at the screening I attended, The Rehearsal may prove a controversial inclusion in the 2016/17 Perth International Film Festival. New Zealand director Alison Maclean picks her way across an ethical minefield in this sprawling adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s 2008 novel of the same name. In tracking the often personally confronting and emotionally chaotic progress of a first year drama class, she traverses the uncomfortable territory of underage sex, the seduction of minors by adults, and the plundering of private lives in the service of art.
The lead character, 18yo Stanley (James Rolleston, who featured in the excellent The Dark Horse at last year’s Festival), is one of a new intake of students accepted into a sought-after actor training institution. His acting potential appears to be close to zero (begging the question as to how he ever made it through the selection process). The intimidating tutor Hannah (Kerry Fox) is a hard taskmaster and provocateur who’ll stop at nothing to break down her students’ defences and drag out the raw truths within. In a sweaty-palm-inducing introductory scene she despairs at Stanley’s woodenness and deficit of imagination as she mercilessly puts him through a confronting exercise with one of the female students before a hushed and cowering class. We soon learn that this is typical of her modus operandi. She is the pedagogical equivalent of a boot camp sergeant.
Separated into groups, the students are given the task of choosing a topic for an end-of-year performance exercise. Hannah routinely urges her students to push through boundaries, and is thus delighted when she learns that Stanley’s group has decided to base their assignment on a well-publicised local scandal – a 40yo tennis coach’s seduction of a minor in his tutelage. Better still, Stanley can bring some insider knowledge to the project: his girlfriend Isolde (Ella Edward) is the sister of the girl involved. When Hannah learns that Isolde is only 15, however, she abruptly changes ethical tack. Concerned about the reputation of the institution, she orders Stanley to end the relationship. Instead, he consummates it.
Some viewers are not going to get past the ethical issues thrown up here, but those who refuse to look beyond the dictates of the law are clanging the door shut on the profoundly interesting and relevant human questions being posed – and is it not the very business of art to investigate such grey areas? Maclean clearly thinks so, and is to be applauded for her artistic courage in this regard, and for refusing to lead the viewer in exercising judgment.
At 18, Stanley is an adult and if the law were applied, guilty of the statutory rape of his girlfriend. But is not his case vastly different from that of the 40yo tennis coach who seduces a minor? Is the law equipped to factor in the differences, and is it even workable for teenage couples? Stanley and his girlfriend are sexually inexperienced; both are equally innocent in a sense.
That said, it must be acknowledged that Stanley is aware of his legal responsibility, but what of Hannah’s part in the equation? What are her responsibilities as an educator? She has encouraged subversion in her young charges, urged them to smash through societal and personal limits in quest of exploring the deepest reaches of their humanity. How far can Stanley be blamed for learning her lessons only too well?
Such questions keep coming when Stanley finds himself morally disturbed over betraying his girlfriend’s confidence in turning over personal information to his drama peers on the scandal that has caused her family such pain (eg: Isolde confides to Stanley that her sister “wanted it”, which finds traction with the group, who work this detail into their script). Should the whole of human experience be open for exploitation by artists, as Hannah seems to advocate? If not, where are the boundaries, and how are they determined?
The ethical quandaries raised in The Rehearsal alone make it worth the watch. How well it works as a film will largely depend on viewer willingness to engage with an open mind. In terms of the dramatic fundamentals, the strengths outweigh the deficiencies. The performances, led by Rolleston and Fox, are uniformly excellent. The film’s seemingly haphazard structure and meandering course are both appropriate in that they reference the characters’ uncertain and emotionally undulating developmental path, and something of a weakness (the pace is uneven, slackening off in the middle stages).
Overall, The Rehearsal is a courageous and ambitious work, well-suited to a Festival setting, and sure to provoke lively and perhaps heated post-viewing discussion.
Movie website: http://rehearsalfilm.com/
The Rehearsal screening dates (2016-17 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
ECU Joondalup Pines: Tue 13–Sun 18 Dec 2016, 8pm
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