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Competeing addictions: love and heroin

Anna Zagala on the Candy experience

Anna Zagala is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She is in the process of writing a feature length film, Three Point Turn, and her book on the screenprinting design studio Redback Graphix will be released later in the year through the National Gallery of Australia.

In Francois Truffaut's French New Wave film The 400 Blows (1959), the protagonist, a wayward schoolboy, wags school for the pleasures of exploring the city. At an amusement fair he tries the Rotor ride, climbing into a circular chamber that spins at great speed. Plastered against its side, he whirls round and round, joyously suspended between sky and ground.
LR: Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish, Luke Davies, Neil Armfield LR: Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish, Luke Davies, Neil Armfield
The opening of Candy, the new Australian film directed by pre-eminent Australian theatre director Neil Armfield and based on Luke Davies' novel of the same name, recalls this very image. This time its own protagonists, the equally wayward Candy and Dan, played by Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger, similarly defy gravity. In this image Armfield finds an eloquent metaphor for the thrill of heroin, and its seductive sensation of suspending time. It's an impossible wish, of course, and the film charts the consequences of Candy and Dan’s spiralling addiction. Candy is soon forced to work as a prostitute in order to fund their habits while Dan scores and occasionally works a scam. The terrible price that this experience exacts on them individually and as a couple is the subject of the film.

Back in 2003 I attended a daylong scriptwriting workshop at Byron Bay with Neil Armfield and Luke Davies, the film’s co-writer. At that time they had already spent 4 years adapting Davies' novel into screenplay form. Candy, originally published in 1998, was Davies' first novel and he had based it on his own experiences as a long-term addict. Producer Margaret Fink was impressed by the book and approached Davies to develop some ideas he might have into screenplays. None of Davies' suggestions matched the singular intensity of the novel but his own initial draft adaptation—which closely replicated the book's episodic structure—needed development to find its cinematic form. It was at this point that Fink introduced Davies to Armfield, an experienced theatre director with a few television credits and they quickly developed a collaborative relationship.

In particular, Armfield and Davies grappled with how best to convert the book's perspective from Dan's introspective and deluded headspace. Davies commented, "Neil expanded the original cast into the circle of family—family is what he loves to explore—and that's when the script was transformed, when it really began to blossom." They made another crucial change, enhancing substantially the role of Dan's mentor, Casper (performed by Geoffrey Rush, a long-time theatre collaborator of Armfield's), a junkie friend and organic chemistry professor. These changes have shifted much of the story's action from predominantly down-at-heel terraces in Sydney's inner suburbs to a more affluent millieu. Unlike the recent Little Fish (Rowan Woods 2005) that set its own story of heroin use against a bleak backdrop of systemic problems in Sydney's struggling west, Candy’s focus squarely remains the love story between its protagonists. Armfield cited this as what attracted him to the film in the first place. It presented him with a uniquely cinematic opportunity to explore the nature of a sexual relationship, not possible in the theatre.

That central relationship is rendered with great poignancy. While the film is still framed from Dan’s perspective, Cornish’s Candy is the mesmerizing heart of the film. She is by turn youthfully exuberant and full of painful, suppressed emotion. The sparseness of the dialogue makes Cornish’s performance largely one of gesture. It’s remarkable watching her minute shifts in expression as she moves between emotional registers. Ledger likewise inhabits his role with a similar degree of conviction. That we come to like Dan as much as we do attests to Ledger’s ability to play him with surprising compassion. He is a largely thankless character—parasitic and hopelessly passive—for much of the film. But Ledger hones in on Dan’s romanticism; he is an enthusiast. His fervent desire to remain in the moment is a desperate way to avoid thinking too hard about Candy’s sex work in which he is complicit.

The inevitability of the characters’ downward trajectory imbues this love story with a tender melancholy. It’s a minor miracle that our sympathy extends to Candy and Dan for the duration of the film. After all it could be argued that their problems are largely of their own making. Armfield, however, is a compassionate filmmaker and he brings a restrained dignity to the material that includes some difficult and horrific scenes. Instead of psychologising addiction, offering up ‘reasons’ for Candy and Dan’s heroin use that might invoke sympathy for its protagonists, the film takes a refreshingly defiant stance. This is a life lived, for better or worse. Or as Armfield’s puts it, “At the heart of the film is the suggestion that junkies are you and me.” He described this decision as purely aesthetic. As soon as they tried including scenes that might go some way towards providing an explanation for Candy and Dan’s addiction, the story, according to Armfield, got boring. Instead, the film focuses on heroin’s role in this particular relationship, from something that they initially share, to something that divides them.

All of this makes Candy sound very dark indeed, yet it doesn’t feel overly sombre. The film pulses with energy and a killer soundtrack. Sydney sunshine, suburban swimming pools and the ocean's expansive horizon provides the backdrop. The film is awash with light. By staging so much of the action outside and in the daytime, Armfield avoids one of the pitfalls of genre, the cliché of the dank drug den. The film adaptation also retains the book's humour. Dan's voice-over provides a wry perspective on their disintegrating lives. There’s a humorous edge to his baroque, poetic riffs; a comic mismatch between the richness of the language and the increasing leanness of their junkie existence. Candy also includes scenes memorable for their absurdity. In one such sequence Dan steals a wallet from an unlocked car outside a known beat and impersonates its owner at the bank in order to withdraw his money. He would like to be a smooth con artist, but in reality he’s desperate for the money, a complete amateur. It tells you something about Armfield’s view of the world that the victim of the theft—a nerdy, nervous guy—is clearly undeserving of the crime. While we are pleased to see Dan finally pulling his weight, our pleasure is laced with discomfort.

The question of audience identification is one of the more complex aspects of Candy. There is a sense in which heroin and Candy and Dan’s love for one another creates a closed circuit, one that places the viewer on the outside. The film overcomes this difficulty by opening the story up to include Candy’s family. It's a welcome jolt to see that she matters to someone other than Dan. Their initial sense of denial gives way to helplessness at the situation. Tony Martin and Noni Hazelhurst, both excellent here, portray Candy’s uptight, bewildered parents. They find themselves completely out of their depth, fearful of appearing intrusive but nevertheless deeply concerned. Although the film generates a lot of sympathy for them it also manages in a few short scenes to paint a portrait of suffocating conservatism and family dysfunction.

Despite Armfield's background in the theatre, in almost every respect Candy is a cinematic film. If anything Armfield’s professional experience is reflected in the film's overall clarity. It's totally devoid of that awful staginess that marrs so many theatre directors' film efforts. Armfield, accustomed to the democratic nature of the stage, directs his actors with a sense of even-handedness. For the most part it helps shape the film’s rich and complex view of human nature. On occasion however, it feels as though he is unsure of how to best deploy the camera in suggesting interiority. At a crucial point in the story, just when Dan has begun to turn his life around and his relationship with Candy is deteriorating, the film briskly skirts the seismic changes taking place. It feels as though an opportunity has been lost to experience Candy's and particularly Dan’s, deep level of disappointment and hurt.

Minor quibbles aside, Davies and Armfield have fashioned a heart-breaking love story that manages to convey with an elegant simplicity and unerring directness the painful, heady experience of coming of age. The rush of drugs, the rush of love, they're the big notes, sure, and Candy covers that territory with candour. But it's the film’s ability to unearth the more complex emotions that underpin the intoxicating experiences of drug use and love that resonates most. In its many beautifully observed moments Candy shows the tenderness that can exist between 2 people even in the grips of addiction. The cost of Candy and Dan’s getting of wisdom is a deep sense of regret. It's in that final reckoning that Candy most powerfully reminds us of the responsibilities of love.

Candy, director Neil Armfield, writers Neil Armfield, Luke Davies, based on the novel by Luke Davies, Producer Margaret Fink & Emile Sherman, distributed by Dendy Films

Anna Zagala is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She is in the process of writing a feature length film, Three Point Turn, and her book on the screenprinting design studio Redback Graphix will be released later in the year through the National Gallery of Australia.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 17

© Anna Zagala; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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