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. (more…)