Before watching the movie:
This just came up in my digital recommendations a few weeks ago. I thought at first it was a documentary because the promotional images really don’t do much to convey that this is a scripted comedy, instead really getting into the cold war aesthetic.
So basically an Australian woman raises Josef Stalin’s love child in the true Party way, and somehow this leads to political disaster in the modern day. My first thought is that it’s another Australian comedy inserting Australians into places in history where they were not (an interesting apparent trend that may not exist outside these two movies, and I could do with more stories of real Australian history), but I’m really looking forward to the journey getting there, especially with a cast of familiar names, some of which I can actually place.
After watching the movie:
Young Australian communist Joan is fighting to change the world from small pub meetings and the occasional protest. Her friend Welch tags along not because he believes in communism but because he loves her even if her public protests embarrass him. Joan writes almost daily directly to Josef Stalin with updates about the Australian Communist movement, but as the 1951 Referendum approaches, she finds herself losing hope that anyone is reading her letters. Actually, one of Stalin’s assistants is reading them, and he arranges for Stalin to accidentally come upon her file and become interested in meeting her. He strategically arranges the whole thing as a date, and it goes so successfully for him he dies in bed with her. When Joan comes home she’s pregnant, and returns to Welch asking him if his proposal of marriage is still good, since she has a baby without a father. As young Joe grows up, his mother’s political revolutionary lifestyle rubs off on him, though not all of her beliefs, and as he climbs through a political career and unbalances the Australian government, he becomes worryingly like his namesake.
Perhaps part of why this came to my attention while I was looking for documentaries is that it’s structured halfway like one. Frequently, the story is narrated by characters looking back on the saga in 90s interviews, but the non-interview parts play like a normal scripted movie, so I don’t feel entirely right about calling it a mockumentary. On the other hand, frequent uses of stock footage and real history (I had not known about the Menzies government trying to ban the Communist party) do occasionally give it a stronger than usual sense of verisimilitude.
The plot is incredibly complicated. I had to cut two subplots out of the summary, and it’s still a pretty long one, because I felt that events in the third act were important to explaining what the movie is. There’s actually ambiguity about Joe’s parentage, because there’s an English spy in Soviet employ named David who claims he and Joan were together the same night. But of all the men with a claim to be called Joe’s father, I think he looks most like Welch, who is very definitely not his biological father. Also highly influential in Joe’s development is that he falls in love with a police officer, and there’s a whole bunch of things that opens up.
As a story spanning over three decades, this does a remarkable job aging most of the actors subtly. Some of the techniques are clearly things people might correct in real life, like Joan’s hair getting frizzier as she gets older, but as the makeup increases people’s apparent ages, nobody ever looks like they’re wearing a rubber mask. Everyone just seems to be steadily getting older.
Aside from the tangled melodrama, this gets into some political commentary about power corrupting ideals, but it doesn’t quite fully develop it. It doesn’t go into detail about if Joe’s political motivations slide, just that his ability to carry them out can’t be kept in check. And then there’s a scene that muses that becoming a monster might just be hereditary.
This dark comedy is more interesting than entertaining, especially as it goes on and the comedy drains out. I wonder if it might work as a miniseries, with more time to let the family drama and web of half-truths breathe while also having room to more fully develop its themes as well as keeping things funny. It’s so densely plotted it feels much longer than it is. But whatever it is, it’s improved my opinion on Australian revisionist history.