Wednesday, March 05, 2008

façade: Richard Roxburgh

The classically trained Richard Roxburgh is one of the few Australian actors who hasn't quite penetrated the consciousness of American moviegoers.

While fellow Aussies (and frequent Roxburgh co-stars) Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Toni Collette and Hugh Jackman, to name but a few, have become A-listers in American films, Roxburgh himself has remained Down Under, appearing to great acclaim on stage, making homegrown films and dabbling in stage directing.

On stage in Australia, he's appeared in "Closer," "Burn This," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Homecoming" and "Hamlet," for which he won the Sydney Theater Critics' Circle Award.

So perhaps it's a matter of personal choice. On the other hand, the few films which might have made audiences here acquainted with Roxburgh have cast him, rather inexplicably, as villains, starting with Gillian Armstrong's "Oscar and Lucinda"(1997) and continuing with John Woo's "Mission: Impossible II" (2000), Stephen Norrington's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (2003) and, most regrettable of all, Stephen Sommers' unwatchable "Van Helsing" (2004).

And, of course, there was his role as The Duke in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), which wasn't so much dark as it was resminiscent of vintage Richard Hadyn - a strange yet entertaining performance.

Now that Roxburgh has made his directorial debut - and with a film that has generated a lot of art-house buzz and good reviews - perhaps his time of recognition has come. Wouldn't it be odd if Roxburgh's breakthrough in America came as a filmmaker?

In "Romulus, My Father," based on Raimond Gaita's autobiography, adpated by Nick Drake, Roxburgh tackles the elusive yet compelling idea of imperfect parents, played with subtle power here by Eric Bana, in his best performance to date as the titular Romulus, and Franka Potente, as a woman with only a tenuous grip on reality. Caught in-between his father's frustration as an alien/outsider in a rural area and his mother's slipping sanity is young Raimond (played by Kodi Smith-McPhee, a real find) who, perhaps because of his mother's decline (as well as her long absences), forges an intense bond with his father.

The film, set in the 1950s, makes excellent of the rural, rough-hewn landscape and also offers Marton Csokas in a major supporting turn as Romulous' friend, Hora.

Roxburgh's film earned a record 19 Australian Film Institute award nominations, including for best picture and Roxburgh's direction and won six, including awards as best film, best actor (Bana) and supporting actor (Csokas), among others. It was also nominated for nine awards by the Film Critics Circle of Australia (winning another for Csokas).

Now might be a good time to check out two fine films which should have provided a breakthrough for Roxburgh as an actor - Cherie Newlan's affecting "Thank God He Met Lizzie," opposite Cate Blanchett, and particularly Chris Kennedy's electric "Doing Time for Patsy Cline," with Miranda Otto, both made in 1997. Unfortunately, they received next-to-no play in America but they are now available here on DVD.

"Lizzie" never actually played theatrically in America and was awkwardly (and needlessly) retitled by Image Entertainment as "The Wedding Party" for its 2001 DVD debut here. It casts Roxburgh as Guy (perfect name here), a lifelong bachelor who finally decides he needs a soulmate and finds one in the form of Lizzie (Blanchett), a doctor. Things move quickly towards a wedding date - so quickly that Guy not only gets a bad case of the nerves but also nostalgia. Suddenly, he's daydreaming about one of his old girlfriends, Jennie (Frances O'Connor), which we see in flashbacks.

It's all low-keyed and appealing and much more mature than its American/wedding film counterparts. Newlan, who recently directed Brends Blethyn in the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't "Introducing the Dwights," keeps matters light and uninsistent. For the record, Blanchett and Roxburgh previously appeared together in the aforementioned "Oscar and Lucinda."

Roxburgh had the role of a lifetime as a dashing but untrustworthy music promoter/slick operator named Boyd in Kennedy's dusty and deliciously rude "Doing Time for Patsy Cline," a road film that takes its characters from the Outback to Sydney, even though they have Nashville on their minds.

Traveling in a stolen Jaguar with a would-be country singer named Patsy (Otto), Boyd picks up a teenager, Ralph (Matt Day), who also has country-music pretentions and is, in fact, on his was to Nashville. He has money for the plane ticket but needs to hitch a ride to the Sydney airport. Ralph is immediately attracted to Patsy, but the journey is interrupted by police who find drugs in Boyd's car. Patsy gets away, but the guys end up in jail, a terrific sequence in which Kennedy manages to shoehorn in comedy, songs and several bravura moments by Roxburgh.

Otto, done up in a shock of red hair, displays an appealing singing voice and her chemistry with Roxburgh is palpable. Reportedly, they were dating at the time and they both seem to be having the time of their lives. Roxburgh won the Best Actor award from the Australian Film Institute for his performance as Boyd.

"Patsy Cline," which received a belated and very brief American release in New York and Los Angeles in 2005, is now available on DVD here, along with another Richard Roxburgh-Miranda Otto offering, "In the Winter Dark." Look for both, and "The Wedding Party," on, where they are taking pre-orders now.

BTW, "Thank God He Met Lizzie" and "Doing Time for Patsy Cline" both played the 1997 Cannes Film Festival; "Patsy Cline" was also shown at the 1998 Boston Film Festival.

(Artwork: Richard Roxburgh, a scene from "Romulus, My Father," which he directed, with Franka Potente and Eric Bana, a moment from "Doing Time for Patsy Cline," with Miranda Otto and Roxburgh as Hugh Stamp, one of the villains in John Woo's "Mission: Impossible II")

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Anonymous said...

He's an odd case. I haven't seen most of his Australian films, which sound wonderful. His turn in "Moulin Rouge" stands out, if only for its oddness, but after seeing M:I 2, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing, I couldn't have picked him out of a line-up (which may be just as well for him -- all 3 are stinkers).

I'll keep an eye out for the others, especially the ones with Otto. I really liked her in the 1996 Aussie film Love Serenade. She's currently on American TV in Cashmere Mafia (with her equally talented countrywoman Frances O'Connor), but I can't bring myself to watch it for some reason.

joe baltake said...

He's absolutely amazing in "Doing Time for Patsy Cline," a film that deserved better exposure here.

Libby said...

He weas grreat in "Children of the Revolution." Great cast, too. Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Goffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Libby. That was an oversight, a big one, given that I like the film a lot. You were not alone in reminding about it.

Kent said...

I’ve never heard of Richard Roxburgh or seen DOING TIME FOR PATSY CLINE or CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION, of course. They seem like interesting projecs to me, but I’m sure they’re worth looking at. Got to discover Roxburgh.

Darwin said...

It really is unfortunate that Roxburgh has mostly only been seen in awful roles by American audiences. He's a fantastic actor with some really brilliant films and stage work to his name. Some of his television roles are also worth checking out if you can find them. 'Rake' is a personal favourite of mine at the moment.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Darwin! I'll definitely try to track down "Rake."