In 1964, the town of Jindabyne in New South Wales, Australia was moved from its original location to higher ground in order to make way for a lake to be formed by the damming of the fabled Snowy River. Early on in the film of the same name, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) tells his young son Tom that if you listen carefully, sometimes you can still hear the old church bell ringing and when the water is low enough, you can even see the tip of the church steeple. Stewart may simply be impressing his son with old legends and tales, but the film is indeed saturated with the sense of something lurking beneath the surface; old secrets, guilt and unspoken tensions that cast a pall over the film and lend it an unsettling, creeping dread. When Stewart discovers the naked body of an Aborigine girl during his annual fishing trip with friends, old tensions throughout the town come bubbling to the surface; tension between races, between friends and among families.
Directed by Ray Lawrence (Lantana) and based on a short story by Raymond Carver, Jindabyne is not a whodunit. We know who killed the girl because we’re introduced to victim and killer at the beginning of the film. We don’t see the actual crime, but we next see the girl when Stewart discovers her lifeless body and the story is set in motion.
The central problem of the film arises when Stewart and his fishing buddies don’t report their find right away but instead choose to finish their weekend fly fishing the isolated creek. The men have ready justification for their actions, but in the absence of a suspect, the horror of the town and the anger of the Aborigine community is transferred to these men. The question becomes not one of whether the killer will be found but of whether the men and their families will survive the turmoil stirred up by their discovery and the controversy over how they handled it.
For her part, Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) wants to do something. She explains to their son: “When something bad happens, we have to do a good thing no matter how small otherwise the bad things pile up and up.” She goes about collecting money to help pay for the funeral services of the dead girl, but the town is indifferent and the family of the girl does not welcome her gesture. Stewart on the other hand would like to forget about the whole thing and have life return to normal. He’s a reticent man and it’s enough for him to keep the peace between his overbearing mother and his wife who we find out has a past of instability. At one point when Stewart’s nose is broken, he cracks it back in place and explains you have to “do it right away while the adrenaline is still pumping and you won’t feel it” yet when it comes to problems less physical, he takes the opposite tack. It’s this conflict between action and inaction that continually drives the story.
This is a slow, moody and somewhat vague film that at times seems to be reaching for more than the direct, simple strokes of Carver’s original story can convey, but it’s never less than engaging. Don’t expect a nice neat Hollywood ending, however. We’re not allowed the satisfaction of knowing that the conflict between the white and Aboriginal communities will be resolved, but at least we’re given hope that old wounds within Stewart’s family may be healed and in the end that feels like enough.
Gabriel Byrne gives a nice, low-key performance as Stewart. He’s credible as a decent man who is filled with a lifetime of repressed feelings. Laura Linney is great as the well meaning but troubled Claire who has some repressed guilt of her own.
Jindabyne: Australia 2006. Directed by Ray Lawrence. Written by Beatrix Christian. Based on the Raymond Carver short story “So Much Water So Close to Home”. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney, John Howard and Deborrah-Lee Furness. 2 hours 3 minutes. MPAA rating: R for disturbing images, language and some nudity. 3.5 stars (out of 5)