Stumbling onto the set of The Sound of One Hand Clapping one
day in Hobart, a casual visitor might have imagined that it was
some sort of kitchen sink drama, in a household where kitch was
the operative word. A gilded fern to one side of the shell
decorated fireplace battled the floral wallpaper (even on the
beams) and cheap gilt covered the light switches. The
unco-ordinated décor screamed louder than the first assistant
Kerry Fox, as the grown up Sonja, was standing by at the door,
ready to make her entrance to this new home that her father Bojan
(Kristof Kaczmarek) had decorated for her as a gesture of
reconciliation, after two decades of estrangement. It was a
difficult emotional tussle for Sonja, her dismay at the décor
– which symbolised the vast difference between them –
had to somehow accommodate the fact that it was a gesture of
generous intent by her father.
Fox managed it with every take, her response a mesh of
rejection and tolerance, each fighting the other. It was
instructive to watch her work on the set, her focus razor sharp,
her concentration pointed at the needs of her craft.
"I knew the feelings
inside, but I had to express what I felt in a way that caused
an emotional effect in the audience."
Talking about it now, Fox explains how she felt about this
demanding role. "I felt very good about what I was doing,
but I worked hard at getting it out there. I knew the feelings
inside, but I had to express what I felt in a way that caused an
emotional effect in the audience. So it was quite a technical way
of working. But I thought the script was very moving and
In this, his first film, writer/director Richard Flanagan
tackles the subject of a father and daughter whose lives have
lost meaning, "until they find the solutions within each
other," as he puts it. It is a dark, tense story, set in
Tasmania, where the father came as a Slovanian immigrant blue
collar worker with his young wife and daughter, who has been
alienated from his daughter. The story spans four generations, as
they try to re-establish a relationship. There are scenes set in
1954, 1960, 1967 and 1989. Their reconciliation and the dark
secret it reveals about her mother and her death, enables her to
face the truth about her own life.
"The film is an
intimate story of three people whose lives are destroyed by
an event in the war"
Post war European migrants often came to Australia with
memories of a past they would rather forget, and this was one
such family. The flash backs in the film explore how uneasy the
welding together of cultures really was in many cases. But
ultimately, the film is an intimate story of three people whose
lives are destroyed by an event in the war that echoes
unstoppably in a young mother’s mind.
The film was invited to the Berlin Film Festival in February
this year, where critics found it a moving experience. Writing in
Die Tageszeitung, Detlef Kuhlbrodt said; "actually the film
competition as such doesn’t mean much to me, but this film
should be given an award." Kuhlbrodt had come out of the
screening "into the grey Berlin weather, staring at the
ground because your face is still a little tear-strained, and you
look up every now and again to see if the eyes of the others who
were in the cinema with you are also red with tears. This sounds
really super-kitsch and embarrassing but after all your task is
to cover the actual story – and to praise the film in a way
that is understood by others."
"My brain was on that
Fox herself had to translate Sonja to the audience in the same
way: abandoned in a small hut by her mother at three, the
bewildered little girl grows up amongst the migrant workers at a
hydroelectric plant construction site, her father alternating
between drunken and sullen, unable to cope with either his
daughter or his loneliness.
In this setting, the central European social environment is as
evident as is the physical setting of central Tasmania. Fox had
just two months earlier finished shooting a film in Bosnia,
Welcome to Sarajevo (opening here in June), where she had a first
hand taste of both central Europe and central Europe at war.
"My brain was on that circuit," she says.
And, she adds, "Sonja was also discovering things as she
went along, about her past and her family. So on a day to day
level, I found it relatively easy and I loved being in
"He’s a great
man, an extraordinary man who understands human nature."
Her task was made somewhat easier by her smooth working
relationship with writer/director Richard Flanagan.
"He’s a great man, an extraordinary man who understands
human nature. He’s clear and direct and knows what he wants:
he always wants more and better. The biggest thing was to work
out a language so we could understand each other."
On the day of our interview last week, Kerry Fox flew to
Kenya: she was off To Walk with Lions, or at least to make a film
called that, about wildlife park founder George Adamson, and his
protégé Tony Fitzjohn, whose girlfriend Fox is playing. She
will be working with Hungarian-born Australian director Carl
"It’s a question
of a script being interesting and intelligent."
Versatility is clearly appealing to Fox, whose first major
role as Janet Frame in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table,
earned her instant international attention. She has since made
The Last Days of Chez Nous for director Gillian Armstrong, as
well as Danny Boyle’s famous low budget comedy, Shallow
Grave. In Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, Fox
co-stars as a war correspondent with Stephen Dillane (seen as
Patsy Durack in last month’s mini series, Kings in Grass
Castles), Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei.
The choice of roles is usually instantaneous for Fox: "I
usually know straight away if a script appeals to me. I suppose
it’s a question of a script being interesting and
intelligent. I don’t really know what it is – it’s
just a gut feel. Unless of course on page three I see a line
like: ‘She’s got a great ass….’
This article also appeared in
The Australian, April 23, 1998.