Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2016)

What is the price of love?

It’s 1997 in the rather plain city of Canberra, Australia. Quiet engineer Joe Cinque (Jerome Meyer) and his more outspoken law student girlfriend Anu Singh (Maggie Naouri) are going through a rough patch. Despite professional opinions telling her otherwise, Anu believes that she is deeply sick with a terminal illness, while Joe, on the other hand, starts to question her sanity and the possibility that she might be delusional.

In discussion with her best friend, fellow law student Madhavi Rao (Sacha Joseph), so convinced is Anu of her imminent death, that she begins constructing the perfect suicide, peppering her motivation with extravagant lies about suffering at Joe’s hands, all of which Madhavi accepts without question. But as Anu and Madhavi delve deeper into their scheme, it becomes all the more complicated with several others getting involved — and then there’s poor Joe at the center of it all, completely oblivious as to his part in their plans, despite the fact that it may cost him his life.

How much do you know about the Joe Cinque case? If you’re familiar enough with the strange deeds of this true crime story, then you may be able to more readily accept the lack of insight in this adaptation of the book by acclaimed author Helen Garner. As a newcomer to the story, I must confess, I was confused and irritated by the script.

'Why doesn't anyone laugh at my puns?'
‘Why doesn’t anyone laugh at my puns?’

The more I delved into the ideas behind the film, Garner’s original intentions, the central character of Anu Singh at the heart of it all, and the case itself, I came to wonder if this reaction of confusion and anger was actually the result of the real-life pointless crime and the subsequent injustice.

See, Helen Garner was witness to the case trials at the time and became incredibly sympathetic towards the Cinque family. Her paperback was an impassioned response to a rather soft court that took far more sympathy towards the defendants rather than the victim himself. The title of the book was to reflect the author’s idea that despite the court’s failing to deliver justice, there was a consolation for the memory of Joe Cinque, her novella existing to speak out on his behalf.

The central figure at the heart of all the drama, Anu, was and still remains a great mystery, a recent interview she gave in light of the movie demonstrates that she continues to have very little self-awareness and is just as puzzling as ever. Sotiris Dounoukos, making his feature debut as producer, co-writer and director here, may’ve bitten off more than he can chew, seemingly determined to keep the questions of ‘why’ along with ‘the responsibility of the crime’ alive, which works as a double edged sword for film — allowing audience interpretation on the one hand, while lacking real depth on the other.

One carefully balanced see-saw of empathy was David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the 2014 flick wavering between husband and wife, just before everything exploded into violence. By the end of Fincher’s movie, we learn that it’s clearly intended to be hotly debated and provocative and for the most part, evidence can be laid for either side being the more sympathetic one (well, that’s prior to the intense and shocking climax). The trouble here with Joe Cinque’s Consolation is that it doesn’t give as much space for debate.

Waiting to Exhale
Waiting to Exhale

Despite its point of view developed from Anu — who suffered with borderline personality disorder (according to subsequent psychiatric assessment) — and willing accomplice Madhavi, it’s too objectively cold, angry and judgmental to even offer a slither of a doubt that Anu’s delusions could’ve ever been true and that perhaps Madhavi feels some sort of personal responsibility or even regret.

Motivation is the largest missing piece in this story and while true to the factual case and Garner’s interpretation of it, it frustrates as a fictionalized narrative. We may never wholly understand someone as disturbed as Anu, but what about all the others who were aware and enabled this tragedy? In particular, the group of law students who were informed of the plan — all apparently intelligent, and one imagines conscious of the dangerous and unlawful implications of all that transpired. Even more difficult to read is Joe himself — why would he ever put himself through such a prolonged Hell, despite the honest advice from his best workmate Chris (Josh McConville) to save himself? It’s here that bewilderment escalates.

While filmmaker Sotiris Dounoukos genuinely believes that he’s telling Joe Cinque’s story for the said, the truth is that Joe is undeveloped. It doesn’t help that newcomer Jerome Meyer appears uncertain and stiff all the way through. This film isn’t a consolation; it’s an ongoing conundrum that’s uncomfortable, confronting and worrying, the title becoming problematic in light of that, despite its connection to literary merit (likely the only real reason it remained).

It’s not all bad though. I will say the picture has potential to grow on its audience, provided they understand its background and context — the fact I’m still wrestling with its events demonstrates that it does offer some food for thought in terms of the eerie reality behind it. And there’s much praise to be given for its overall execution — the cinematography by Simon Chapman, Cut Snake (2014), is suitably subdued, the firm editing rhythm by Angelo Angelidis, Obama Mama (2014), and Martin Connor, The Railway Man (2013), always maintaining the right focus and the meditative music score by Antonio Gambale, Stung (2015), lingering on after the end credits have rolled by.

No one makes me less unhappy than you.
No one makes me less unhappy than you.

At the heart of it all, Sacha Joseph, It’s A Date (2013), puts in solid support as Madhavi Rao although she has little to do but be complacent, and as mentioned earlier Jerome Meyer, Secrets & Lies (2014), seems awkward; so this is truly the Maggie Naouri show, who somehow manages to find some emotional truth within a pathological liar. Her ability to intrigue, charm and alarm seemingly in the blink of an eye is what carries the narrative up until it dips into the repetitive and inevitable. I’m very excited to see what challenging roles she may tackle in the near future.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a tricky film to process due to the complex crime it explores but perhaps that’s part of the point. Director Sotiris Dounoukos seems to have much to offer and I’m confident Maggie Naouri’s star will only rise higher over the next few years. For the curious — it may be best to have some background understanding before viewing the film and someone to vent with when it comes to a crashing halt. Despite the frustrating shortage of real understanding and resolution, I imagine Helen Garner wouldn’t want you to feel any other way.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Joe Cinque’s Consolation is released through Titan View