In The Eye of the Storm, the ailing matriarch of an Australian family, Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling), has decided it’s time to die—which she believes is the right of the rich. She calls on her two children, Basil and Dorothy (Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis), to come see her before she passes on. The title recalls the storm of grown children dealing with the death of a parent, the storm clouding Elizabeth’s mind and a literal decades-old storm that marked a rift in the family. Once Basil and Dorothy arrive, the two worry they will be written out of Elizabeth’s will and replaced by her staff of servants and nurses, kept as pets to entertain her.
Elizabeth exploits the fact that Dorothy, who kept only her title in a messy divorce from a French prince, and Basil, a knighted actor who’s losing his touch, are both in financial trouble. The siblings are falling apart due to their fiscal woes, as evidenced by ripped stockings, popped-off buttons and holey clothes. Elizabeth is falling apart because of her illness, and the film chronicles her “morphine moments,” seamlessly following her through non-chronological flashbacks that explain the origins of their strife. Still, the Hunter family vanity is ever-present. Rush, Rampling, and Davis are masterful actors, and they make the entirely unrelatable and unlikable Hunter clan seem at least moderately convincing.
Everything in the movie is remarkably cold; the characters are emotionally frigid, and the sea- and sky-focused cinematography washes us in faded blues and greys. Director Fred Schepisi uses wide-angle shots that further separate the characters, both emotionally and physically. One bright spot is the vibrant, rosy-cheeked Flora (Alexandra Schepisi, the director’s daughter), one of Elizabeth’s nurses. With her unrefined Australian accent and brassy charms, she gives respite from the cast of unpalatable characters while endearing herself to Elizabeth, Basil and the audience as a whole.
The near-sociopathic tendencies of the protagonists make The Eye of the Storm fascinating to watch. You never know whether a character acts out of genuine feeling or to serve a selfish purpose; this tension drives the plot and keeps the audience engaged and curious.
For a movie centered around death, there is enough comedic relief to keep the film from becoming too melodramatic. The Eye of the Storm’s style and content are a special treat for fans of PBS miniseries; the focus on landscape, familial relations, and ornate furniture feels like a 21st-century Downton Abbey. What is most remarkable is how effortlessly the film handles topics that are often forcibly dragged into the realm of the “heart-wrenching.” While many films (eg. When Did You Last See Your Father) get bogged down in fishing for tears or conveying a moral, The Eye of the Storm is instead a schadenfreude-laced study of the gritty side of family drama.