by Sam Juliano
Careful, He Might Hear You, released in 1983, followed in the footsteps of some exceedingly well-regarded late 70’s films like My Brilliant Career, Gallipoli and Breaker Morant, all of which initiated what is now framed as the Australian New Wave. Based on the novel of the same title by Sumner Locke Elliot the film is set in Depression-era Sydney, and centers around “T.S.,” a six year-old boy, who lost his mother while she gave birth to him. The two initials were given to the boy by the mother during her pregnancy to denote was was apparently a post script to her tempestuous life. A bitter custody battle ensues between an asthmatic aunt and her poor Labor party politician husband who have raised the boy since birth in a comparatively impoverished section of the city- and the wealthy but unstable aunt who returns from England, and deciding she can offer the boy much more than her sister can. Few Australian films before or since have offered up such unabashed, naked emotions on a melodramatic stage, nor have left viewers so shattered by narrative events that are dictated by class structure, misinterpretation and tragedy.
The novel was a big hit in the US, Britain and Germany, but in Elliot’s then-native Australia it sold literally just a handful of copies, because of the country’s intolerance for gay writers of the early 60’s. Sumner moved to New York City in 1948, where he remained until his death of colon cancer at the age of 74. It was Sumner’s first and most critically praised novel in a successful writing career, and it largely autobiographical, relating the events of his own childhood, starting with the corresponding death in childhood of his mother, who was at the time a famous writer herself. Elliot’s deadbeat father, Logan, was the same irresponsible alcoholic he is portrayed as in the book, though the film paints him more sympathetically. Both sisters refer to the dead mother as “Dear one,” and are similarly headstrong, but for the most part are studies in contrast. Lila can’t offer the boy anything remotely extravagant, but he is very happy living with her and her husband George in a young life that is uncomplicated and sufficiently affectionate. To be sure the childless couple demonstrate little patience, and harshly overact to the boy’s unintentional foul ups connected to the sparsity of basic domestic items. Still, they are fiercely protective of the boy, and doggedly defend what they see as their inherent right to maintain custody. Vanessa, obviously spoiled, neurotic and a prime purveyor of manipulative strategies is rich, refined and beautiful, and once had an affair with the boy’s father. A surprise visit by Logan at her palatial estate on the other side of the harbor midway through the film reveals the extent of their past and the speaks of the present that invariably leads to a dead-end street.
Vanessa sweeps in from England with sudden interest in the boy and is initially on the receiving end of cooperation from her sister, who reluctantly grants her time with the boy. The rich sister becomes more determined than ever to win the boy’s affection and moves forward on formal custody hearings, which lead to some ugly interchanges, including one where the two sisters exchange “I despise you” declarations in and around a moving car. Vanessa’s bizarre extended nocturnal embrace of TS during a raging lightning storm outdoor her home suggests Vanessa has some psychological issues, and she makes the boy promise he won’t divulge the incident. Shortly thereafter she pays for Logan to return from Broken Hill, figuring a re-kindling of their relationship would bolster her chances at winning the boy, but the attempt backfires when Logan tells her after an intimately encounter overheard by TS that she is incapable of love, and then as the final straw the drunken father refuses to reward her sole guardianship. Logan’s big scene with the boy provides the film with one of its most wrenching passages – the outwardly masculine father suddenly breaks down in front of TS, who’s wide eyes poignantly capture the full extent of his betrayal, yet for that precise moment a clear show of remorse over what is the most shameful and unforgivable act a parent can inflict on his child – abandonment.
Logan however, gives a deaf ear to Lila’s request for the legal papers that will give her and George custody, earning a right hook from the latter at the train station after an obnoxious alcoholic tirade. Vanessa soon discovers that George lost his job, and her lawyer uses that and Lila’s condition to diminish their claims, despite the fact that boy himself has repeatedly demanded he remain with his longtime caretakers. The Judge awards Vanessa final custody after posing some misleading questions to the boy in his quarters, and then erring on the boy’s true wishes. It almost seems like the magistrate was paid for rendering the verdict. TS immediately withdraws into a shell and is despondent over the devastating decision that has deprived him of his independence and continuity, yet it is clear that Vanessa still holds some degree of sway with her alluring glamour. He is sent to a private school run by some painfully rigid educators, and is allowed some get-togethers with friends in the spacious home. At one such gathering Vanessa is brutally rebuffed when TS instructs his playmates to reenact the provocative embrace he envisioned while listening behind a close door when his father and aunt made physical contact. She then realizes that further resistance is foolhardy, and she surrenders the boy, personally taking him back on a boat across the harbor. A terrible accident involving a freighter takes the life of Vanessa, and the boy is again shattered, running off while insisting that his name is “Bill,” but conscious-stricken by her loss, and the realization that even in her dysfunctional machinations, she did care for the boy, and genuinely thought she could expand his life. In the end TS is hopelessly torn between the desire to return to the past, acknowledging his dead aunt, and wanting his father back in his life.
Perhaps the most astonishing component in the film is the indescribably beautiful score by Ray Cook. The Australian composer, who died in his 50’s was well enough known as a musician, mostly as a pianist, and moved to London in 1960 to work on West End musicals. Careful, He Might Hear You was his first movie assignment, though what he brought to the film was on the order of a veteran composer. While the impassioned and occasionally bombastic instrumentation injects an already haunting film with an added layer of emotional depth, it is a remarkable stand alone work, deserving of classical music hall scheduling. The main theme -expansive and accelerating is orchestrated for two interacting lines of strings with sonorous vibrato. The main melody, a triumphant coda, pulls back to allow for an adagio-like supporting motif where you hear the second line, lending an aching echo of fleeting lyricism, that serves to project the proper aural melancholia behind some of the film’s most resounding dramatic scenes. The violins seem to be having a conversation, incognizant of the surging orchestral colors that will soon become all-encompassing. Though a full orchestra negotiates the score, the strings are in total control, as ever projecting the deepest musical expression of human despair. Throughout the score Cook smartly keeps the main theme in recurring mode – it is so ravishing, and ultimately tear-inducing, and it helps to bridge the more decorous surreal passages a deeper human context. There is much urgency, confusion and unrest in some of the secondary passages, but these are wonderfully counter-balanced by delightful passages like the one where TS practices piano. An infectious, bouncy waltz gloriously carries the scene, and represents what is surely the most striking musical deviation in the score, and in view of the film’s general austerity, a marked counterpoint. The scene where the kids mock Vanessa for her benign tryst with Logan contains what is the closest to “horror film music” while the section referred to in the score CD as “Vanessa’s Mansion” is wholly sublime.
The most vital aspect of a fevered melodrama of course are the performers, and Director Carl Schultz brought together an A team. Purportedly hundreds of kids were interviewed to play TS, but Schultz went back to his very first interview of Nicholas Gledhill, the son of renowned Australian actor Arthur Dignam to secure his finalist. Gledhill, who pursued an acting career after the success of his work in Careful projects an earthy sincerity, using his eyes to wonderful effect, but holding in the swirling emotions that threaten to erupt at any juncture. He seems intuitive well beyond his years, and as the shocking conclusion confirms he has changed, realizing at long last that all adults are flawed, and unjustly demonized. It is an extraordinary performance for any actor to pull off, much less a six year boy, and it vies for countdown honors. While a pint sized tyke keeps the film’s brewing emotions under tenuous control, the two aunts give affecting performances. The more famous actress, Wendy Hughes is unlikable from the start, since it is clear enough she is seeking to destroy the humanist equilibrium to feed selfish aims. Hughes superbly captures the neurosis, while holding back a more benign spirit that slips through in the denouement. Hughes won the Best Actress Australian Film Institute for her work here. The other aunt, played by Robyn Nevin, is generally sympathetic because of her social status and physical ailment, though she likewise is unyielding and sometimes mean spirited. Nevin superbly captures the character’s bewilderment and bitterness. As Logan in a smaller, but unforgettable role, John Hargreaves won the Best Supporting Actor prize for his turn as the basically good-natured but hopelessly inebriated deadbeat dad. His big scene with his son is an acting master class of frustration, shame and defeat. It should be mentioned here that the film won eight Australian Film Institute Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Carl Schultz.
Careful He Might Hear You is the kind of film one would connect with the work of Douglas Sirk, a master of Hollywood melodrama. It is lushly set, creamily photographed with a keen eye for some of Australia’s sensory garden locations, acted with deep conviction by a first-rate cast, faithfully adapted from Locke’s Elliot’s poetic prose, directed with guile and sensitivity by Hungarian-Australian Schultz (ironically like Sirk from central Europe); and of course scored by Cook in what is surely one of the most ravishing and soaring symphonic compositions ever written for a motion picture. In the end it is a lasting tribute to Sumner Locke Elliot, that his tumultuous, deeply compromised childhood could translate to one of the most intensely moving motion pictures ever made on the Australian continent.