Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

1980, New Zealand, directed by John Laing

A docudrama that recounts one of New Zealand's most famous murder cases - and more to the point one of the country's most notorious legal proceedings, the trials and pardon of Arthur Allan Thomas - Beyond Reasonable Doubt is also a key early film in the development of the New Zealand film industry, whose modern incarnation began around 1977 with début features from Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs) and Geoff Murphy (Wild Man). Prior to that date, feature production was intermittent in the extreme (I'd love, though, to see the 1964 Runaway, featuring a very young Kiri Te Kanawa), which meant that there wasn't much of a local talent pool. When production began on this film, director John Laing was enticed back home from Canada, having spent time both there and in the UK honing his craft; it's nice to see that he was subsequently able to carve out a career at home in New Zealand, moving between TV and movies.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt was Laing's first feature assignment, and it's generally a very confident bit of work. The story is presented as a procedural, and yet one with an unresolved mystery at its heart, since the murderer of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe has never been identified. In that respect, at least, the film has something in common with David Fincher's Zodiac. Neither film attempts to provide the audience with a truly satisfying resolution, although Beyond Reasonable Doubt does jettison the question mark which appeared in the title of David Yallop's book, which he adapted for the screen, perhaps because by that point real-life events had vindicated Yallop's thesis that Arthur Allan Thomas was not the murderer, despite being convicted on two separate occasions (in one of those odd coincidences, a man by the name of Arthur Leigh Allen was a suspect in the Zodiac killings).

Although the film presents events in generally straightforward fashion, Laing creates a mood of deep mistrust in the farming communy where the murder took place. The area seems riven with rivalries and slightly off-colour characters, where strange behaviour is quickly given a sinister spin. The Lower Waikato landscapes are shot in flat and uninviting terms (the photography is by Alun Bollinger), a radical contrast to the use of landscape in Sleeping Dogs and in so many subsequent New Zealand films. The Price of Milk, for instance, which takes place in similar farming country, uses the landscape as a jumping-off point for magical happenings.

The state of the New Zealand film industry in 1980 was especially apparent in front of the camera, with three of the key roles allocated to imported actors: Englishman David Hemmings, who does a very fine job as the over-zealous Inspector Bruce Hutton, walking right into the abyss marked miscarriage of justice, along with Australians Tony Barry, as Hutton's right-hand man, and John Hargreaves as Arthur Allan Thomas. Still, there are appearances from soon-to-be-more-familiar local faces like Martyn Sanderson, Marshall Napier and, especially, Bruno Lawrence, the oddball and much-missed star of films like The Quiet Earth and Smash Palace.

One scene in particular caught my interest for the way in which it contrasts with a similar sequence in There Will Be Blood - a scene analysed, as I've already written, in a fascinating blog post by David Bordwell. Both scenes involve a group of men standing in front of a map: in There Will Be Blood the men are looking at an area that holds the promise of oil wealth, while in Beyond Reasonable Doubt they are examining the distances between different farms as they try to establish whether various individuals might have been capable of committing the Crewe murders. Paul Thomas Anderson holds a shot of his actors, carefully positioned, with the map spread out in the foreground. Laing establishes his scene in near-identical terms, the police carefully assembled around the map (below). However, he chooses to insert several quick shots seen from the perspective of the lead detective, whose hand surveys the map, before returning to that same larger view. At first, the inserts seem to punctuate an increasingly tense scene - which begins with the police moving purposefully toward the map as ideas start to crystallise - but the key difference is the fact that Laing is dealing with an actual setting and a true-crime event, and feels the need to establish the literal placement of the farms so that the audience is fully informed of the facts. That desire to provide accurate information - something that the police signally failed to do at Arthur Allan Thomas's trials - is fundamental to the entire purpose of the film, which later uses voiceover to add details of evidence that the police (or at least some of the police) either concealed or misused.

Ian Conrich makes a somewhat apologetic case for Laing's standing as an auteur in New Zealand Filmmakers, a 2007 collection he co-edited with Stuart Murray - with whom I once took a class on the other side of the Atlantic - and I can't help thinking that even Conrich isn't entirely convinced; that Laing might not be an auteur is no knock against this compelling film. The Conrich/Murray book is, however, essential reading for anyone with an interest in New Zealand film.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States