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Non-Review Review: The Sapphires

The Sapphires is the perfect feel-good movie to take us into Oscar season. The “goldilocks” of feel-good cinema, the movie balances its tone well. It’s never too heavy, but it’s never too light. Dealing with the eponymous Aboriginal girl band and their career in Vietnam during the conflict, it’s often both witty and touching at the same time. This quality is best encapsulated by Chris O’Dowd, playing the group’s slightly dodgy Irish manager, Dave Lovelace. A barely-functioning alcoholic tasked with keeping the tensions in the group under control, O’Dowd manages to make Lovelace simultaneously hilarious and somewhat tragic – a character we truly like, even if we also pity him. It’s a fantastic performance in a very solid film.

Good morning, Vietnam!

The Sapphires never gets too bogged down with tragedy or cynicism. There’s just enough present to give the movie a necessary edge, but never so much that it overwhelms the film. It’s a very tough balance to maintain, as we’re watching a traditional “rise to fame” story set against the backdrop of one of the most brutal conflicts of the twentieth century. If the film pulled its punches too much, then it would seem too soft or manipulative. If it dwelt too heavily on the brutality and loss, then it would suck any joy out of what should be an inspiring story.

It’s a tightrope that the film must walk, and it’s to the credit of director Wayne Blair that the movie seldom misses a step. It might occasionally fall a little too much into sentimentality, but there’s always a candid honesty about the story being told. There is one moment towards the end, one reveal, that does seem like a little bit of a cop-out, particularly since it concerns an entirely fictional character, rather than one based on a real person. Still, it’s one minor misstep in a film that maintains an impressive consistency throughout.

It’s a nice car, but I’m surprised they aren’t taking the soul train…

Indeed, The Sapphires seems much more attuned to the idea of race and racism than The Help was last year. It avoids getting too heavy-handed on the racial politics surrounding the group of Aboriginal singers, but the threads are all there, and handled with a great deal of skill and grace. We see flashes of racism, casual and institutional, as part of everyday life. They aren’t reduced to a bunch of character traits in a pantomime villain, they’re just things that girls have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

In fact, it’s the fact that the film doesn’t anxiously and repeatedly stress that sort of theme that makes it so much more effective when it does come up. When we see the type of behaviour that an African-American soldier must deal with fairly regularly, it’s shocking. Gail explains the history of the stolen generation to the Irish Dave Lovelace, but she recounts it as an essential aspect of her own history, just something that happened. To her, that’s just one expression of an institutional prejudice she has faced every day of her life, so much so that it informs her identity while Dave is completely ignorant of it.

They’re selling the album off the back of a truck…

Asked to pinpoint the history of her animosity towards the member of the group who can “pass” as white, Gail can trace it back to a single sentence – but not one that was shouted in anger or dropped in the heat of an argument. It was a cold statement, made casually. It was the kind of remark that Kay probably didn’t think twice about at the time. It’s an interesting and mature reflection on the nature of racism and that sort of prejudice. The Sapphires handles it well, without ever allowing it to overwhelm the story. It handles the notion of racial identity in a fair less patronising, and much more organic, manner than The Help ever did.

Director Wayne Blair does an exceptional job bringing Vietnam to life on what must have been a tiny budget. That said, there are some strange moments early on – intercutting the car journey from the airport with black-and-white stock footage, for example. These are minor complaints though, and Blair manages to fairly accurately create a sense of place and time. Some of the finer details shine through a bit, and it’s clear that he isn’t working with a blockbuster budget, but there’s some fantastic stuff here. There’s lovely atmospheric shots of convoys moving as villages burn that really contextualises the relative glamour of the rest of the film.

Lovelace of her life…

The four leads all do a great job with the material. Each character is given their own arc, even if the movie does struggle a bit to tie them all up at the end – in particular Julie’s pursuit of fame. If one of the four actresses stands out, it’s Miranda Tapsell as Cynthia, the member of the group who lets fame go to her head, something of a mandatory character type in a story like this. To be fair, the movie plays a lot of the “path to stardom” tropes particularly straight, and it’s not the most unpredictable of stories, but the cast and the director keep it ticking over.

The real breakout performance, though, comes from Chris O’Dowd. The actor has really emerged as a considerable talent in recent years, but The Sapphiresworks perfectly as a showcase for his skills. Playing Dave Lovelace, O’Dowd is tasked with balancing comedy and tragedy. His quirks and ramblings are amusing, but the film does take care to paint his addiction as seriously debilitating. He’s charming and sincere, but he’s also unreliable and inconsistent. He makes a promise to a promoter that he can’t remember due to his drinking. He’s implied to gamble away significant portions of the group’s takings. O’Dowd makes it clear that his intentions are sincere, but that he’s struggling with his own demons.

Save the last dance…

It’s a very tough thing to be both heart-breakingly tragic and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time, but O’Dowd often manages it within the same line. He’s the film’s secret weapon. When things look to get too heavy, with flashbacks of government-sanctioned kidnapping, he lightens the mood with some class-A shoulder-bopping. When things get too light, he injects just the right note of pathetic dysfunction into Dave to make us re-think our perception of the character. It’s a fantastic performance, and one of the most revelatory of the year. I haven’t seen enough of this year’s Oscar crop to offer a definitive opinion, but O’Dowd’s work here deserves a Supporting Actor nomination.

The Sapphires is, appropriately enough, almost tone-perfect. It’s sincere without being earnest. It’s sweet without being saccharine. It’s the perfect mixture for a feel-good film.

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