Healing understands the pain and pathos of broken lives, and the hope and happiness of caring for vulnerable creatures.
The therapeutic bond between people and animals has made for engaging film fodder of all shapes and sizes, with Ken Loach’s Kes one of the great depictions across any genre. There, a kestrel taught a Yorkshire boy to cope with the hardships of youth; in Healing, great birds aid inmates in preparing for post-prison life. The comparison between the social realist classic and Craig Monahan’s lyrical tale of second chances quickly proves earned as well as appropriate.
Inspired by a real-life alliance between Victoria’s corrections department and the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, writer/director Monahan’s first film since 2004’s Peaches understands the pain and pathos of broken lives, and the hope and happiness of caring for vulnerable creatures. As scarred men tend to wounded birds, the healing comes on both sides. The feature may not be subtle in connecting its title with its theme, but what it lacks in subtlety demonstrated in the obvious labelling of its content, it supplies in its naturalistic execution.
After spending 18 years in incarceration for murder, Viktor Khadem is apprehensive (Don Hany, TV’s The Broken Shore) about his move to a minimum-security facility. His fellow prisoners are cautious of his explosive temper and standoffish reputation, as are most of the guards, leaving sympathetic officer Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving, Mystery Road) as his only ally. Their tentative accord stems from a shared commitment to their feathered charges as they work to house and rehabilitate hurt raptors (hawks, eagles and owls, primarily), but inmate politics threaten to derail their progress.
In this story of redemption that takes the term jailbird quite literally, a familiar path is trodden, but the delights are in the details. The stereotypical subplot of tension – that sees the prison’s resident bully (Anthony Hayes, Secrets & Lies) enforce his might over Viktor’s helpers, including the sullen Paul (Xavier Samuel, Adoration) and nervous Shane (Mark Leonard Winter, The Boy Castaways) – both conforms to convention and provides texture for the film’s main drama. The trouble caused by interpersonal angst is a menacing but modest challenge to overcome. Of course, the biggest hurdle is Viktor’s own inability to reconcile past guilt with the possibility of future freedom.
Healing marks Monahan and Weaving’s third collaboration following 1998’s The Interview and the aforementioned Peaches, again demonstrating perceptiveness and poignancy in synchronicity, and again playing to the duo’s strengths. Overt in a style that values lingering, lyrical shots of the grace of winged creatures and the loveliness of the country landscape, but understated in the emotions of regret and restoration conjured, the filmmaker builds layers with patience rather than pace. His script, co-written with first-time film scribe and television veteran Alison Nisselle (Parer’s War), makes its case courtesy of the little things: kind exchanges, tentative steps forward, and efforts towards change, even those that aren’t successful. His visuals turn slivers of beauty and hope into the feature’s canvass.
Monahan’s narrative and aesthetic approach provides ample room for his talented cast to craft compelling performances, having compiled a veritable who’s who of local veterans and up-and-comers across his ensemble effort – Tony Martin (Serangoon Road), Justine Clarke (The Time of Our Lives) and Robert Taylor (Killing Time) among them. In the lead roles, heartbreak ripples through the pairing of Weaving with Hany, the former nuanced and nimble, the latter simmering with the power of solemnity. The efforts of the feature’s animal wranglers also can’t be undersold, with the central feathered friends afforded personality that sells the bond with their carers beyond standard bounds. In Healing, as the birds and humans both tentatively step towards flight, the film soars with empathy and sincerity.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Director: Craig Monahan
Australia, 2014, 119 minutes
Release date: May 8, 2014