Hope and Resilience: Linda Adair reviews ‘Bathing Franky’

Bathing Franky. Directed by Owen Elliott, Produced by Michael Winchester and Owen Elliott, screenplay by Michael Winchester. Starring Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti, Bree Desborough and Shaun Goss. For latest distribution details check http://bathingfranky.com/

Rodney(Henri Szeps) and Franky (Maria Venuti) in Bathing Franky.

The independent feature, Bathing Franky is many things, but above all it is a story about love and resilience, both in terms of the narrative on screen and the background story of how that story came to be told. In order to make the film, director Owen Elliott and a group of creative people local to Paterson, Dungog and Gresford in the Hunter Valley NSW, denied the power of the word ‘No’ and their distance to the capital cities and serious funding capital. Like the promotional flier says “With our imagination we make the world”, and it was only through imagination,  determination and lateral thinking, that a world view existing in the  Hunter Region crystallised  as this lovingly crafted film.

By turns hilariously funny, genuinely moving and even, at times chillingly cold, the surprises of the screenplay are always grounded in the emotional truth of the characters. Disarmingly light in touch, it nevertheless pulls few punches as it handles issues seldom considered in bigger budget Australian films.

When Steve (Shaun Goss) is released on parole from prison, he is unable to connect with his girlfriend Susie (Bree Desborough) and his former friends. Needing a job, he takes on a meals-on-wheels delivery job for a community welfare agency run by the forthright Peg (Kath Leahy) and this is how he meets Rodney (Henri Szeps) who cares full-time for his mother Franky (Maria Venuti) .

The story unfolds in magical moments sustained by Szeps’ irrepressible Rodney.  The audience is swept along by the hope and resilience of people whose lives are impacted by trauma in many forms, be it the day-to-day struggle to get by, the after-effects of imprisonment, the endless self-sacrifice of unpaid carers, or the question of palliative care and the right to live and die with dignity in a system geared up for institutionalized care of the elderly and infirm.  Goss delivers a finely nuanced performance in this striking feature film debut; Venuti’s performance as the now ancient but once glamorous Franky is, despite two hours of ageing latex makeup each day, bravely vulnerable and affecting.

It was startling to watch a feature film which looks so good, plays so well, and has such a big heart, only to discover in conversation with Director, Owen Elliott after the screening, the absurdly meagre budget on which it was created. Whilst both Elliott and Michael Winchester (writer) had referred, during the Q & A at the red carpet launch at Dungog’s historic James Cinema on 16 June 2012, to the nano-budget they had stretched to make this film, hearing the actual dollar value amazed me. One can only imagine how extraordinary this movie could have been, had a realistic budget been available! What has been achieved is miraculous and evidence of the generosity of regional communities working to support their own.

Maria Venuti and Henri Szeps on a (soggy) red carpet at Dungog’s James Theatre.

During the Q & A, Elliott and Winchester  alluded to the challenges small budget films face to obtain distribution under the prevailing distribution models. I had travelled up from Sydney to the Dungog screening to see the film, and to enjoy a weekend in the country at the request of John O’Brien who was the Script Editor, First Assistant Director and who worked on the post production of Bathing Franky.  But something happened during the screening of the film; as I  found myself falling under the spell of the amateur magician Rodney, his once-exotic, now-ancient mother, and the influence they have on Steve and his girlfriend Susie (played superbly by  Desborough).

As fresh eyes from Sydney, I came to the view that the struggle to make, and then distribute, Bathing Franky is emblematic of the struggle about what matters in our culture and society where the majority of the population in the cities and know little of the life of  people living  in country towns and the struggles they face. The narrative on screen is about people living on the margins; the story of the making of Franky is about  people committed to telling our stories who work on the margins often without pay. Even if the resulting product was not as good as it is, it would be a shame for it only to be distributed on the  margins.

We sometimes hear politicians talking about the financial and personal sacrifices carers make and the need to support them in a country with an aging population. The message is not sexy and most voters do not care. This film brings one carer’s situation to life with colour and joy and a surreal twist of humour.

A good script,some great camera work by Gavin Banks and some lovely performances make it a special treat. Some high risk moments are handled sensitively and joyously. And although there are a couple of scenes likely to take some people beyond their comfort zones, these are never gratuitous.

Rochford Street Review wants  encourage audiences in Sydney and  Melbourne, and indeed across Australian, to go and see this film because it is both great fun and a story of good faith.  The problem is, where is it showing? Whilst special screenings have been held to sold out houses in Parramatta, Dungog, Maitland and Newcastle,  distribution in Sydney or Melbourne is far from assured as yet; simply due to the way the prevailing distribution models do not favour small, independent film makers.

Hopefully, the Friends of Franky, and some champions too, will take up this challenge and at least  a limited release in Sydney or Melbourne will be made possible. Again lateral thinking and community support may be the only way this can be done because money is a very real obstacle for people who have put their own funds and unpaid time into the project. Crowd funding is one possible way of raising funds for a screening in a capital centre.

Visit the Bathing Franky website, www.bathingfranky.com, for updates and information, and offer to help if you can to bring this wonderful movie to a cinema in a capital centre near you.

Afterall  ‘with our imagination we make the world’ … but a little bit of practical support  goes a long way too!

At the Q & A after the Dungog screening of Bathing Franky (from left to right) Owen Elliott (Director and Co-Producer), Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti and Michael Winchester (Co-Producer and Writer). (Photo Linda Adair).

– Linda Adair


Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.

1 Comment

  1. I just stumbled across a comment I wrote on Facebook (2014) after watching this movie. I used to write little movie reviews for friends (Films I used to watch whilst I did my weekly ironing chore).
    Underneath it, I had linked this page to Share this review. Obviously the emotions this brilliant film stirred up in me were a little too powerful for me to express myself clearly that day. I must watch it again!

    Aug 5, 2014 Facebook
    “Wow….feeling a little dazed. Today’s “Movie To Watch Whilst Ironing” picked me up, cuddled me, slapped me, threw me up against a wall and then cuddled me again. The power of a great script and incredible acting. Feeling a little too overwhelmed by it all to write a review atm. Will have to sleep on this one overnight and give you a run down tomorrow”

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