Both under-appreciated and an Australian classic, Shame screens in a restored print at MIFF. And it has lost none of its immense power.
It’s 30 years since the ground-breaking feminist rape-revenge tale Shame first blazed its way across our cinema screens, with Deborra-lee Furness starring as a Suzuki-riding, leather-wearing, ball-kicking barrister fighting for justice in a small country town ruled by fear. But while the hairstyles and fashions have dated, the movie – which screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday in a print freshly restored by the National Film and Sound Archive – remains every bit as forceful today as it was back then.
And, say its star and its director, just as timely.
“I love that they’ve restored this film because there’s a whole new generation now that can witness it and the story it’s got to tell, which is still so relevant today,” says Furness, who is in town for the screening. “This is still happening all over the world – in Bangladesh, India, Australia. It’s still happening. That case in India where the woman was gang-raped in the back of a bus – they tried to push it under but the women put it out there and it ended up on the global stage.”
“I have to say with some degree of sadness things are not getting any better,” agrees director Steve Jodrell, who went on to direct lots of TV but never made another feature. “It amazes me that the subject matter of this film is just as painfully relevant today as it was then.”
The story of Shame echoes that of the classic western Shane, with Furness in the Alan Ladd role. In this case, though, it’s not a gunslinger reluctantly drawn into defending settler folk, but a lawyer who stumbles upon a town full of women terrorised by a culture of casual rape after she crashes her motorbike and takes the local mechanic’s spare room.
Furness was 30 when she played Asta Cadell in 1986. “It’s still my favourite role I’ve ever played,” she says. “I just put on those leathers and I was a cowboy. We didn’t get that many opportunities to play those really strong, powerful roles.”
These days, she says, there are more strong women on screen – she cites Charlize Theron’s spy in Atomic Blonde and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman – “but they’re more comic-book”. Roles like Asta, both tough and vulnerable and anchored in the real world, just “don’t come up a lot”.
Simone Buchanan, best known for her role in the sitcom Hey Dad!, was just 18 when she played the rape victim Lizzie Curtis, daughter of mechanic Tim (Tony Barry). Lizzie is scarred by her ordeal, and Tim won’t acknowledge it. It’s a powerful and complex portrait of the toxic swirl of blame and shame that often short-circuits any chance of prosecuting the perpetrators of sexual assault.
Furness recalls taking Buchanan under her wing during the shoot in Toodyay, Western Australia. “I gotta tell ya, we were a little scared ourselves. The town had a very similar feel [to the fictional town in the film]. It was that town. And we were staying at the local hotel and we were a little spooked out.”
The significance of Shame has long been established in film and academic circles. But at some level, Jodrell feels it missed its mark.
“It was our wish from the beginning that we create a B-grade drive-in movie, one that would be full of action and adventure and would allow women to bring their boyfriends along to watch it. The greatest fear any of us had was that we were going to end up preaching to the choir – and unfortunately, I think a lot of the time that is what happened.”
But while it didn’t do great business, Shame did resonate. Furness, who describes herself as “a justice freak”, says it was the film that opened her eyes to the power of the medium.
“When we were making it I felt this is an important film, I could feel it,” she says. And when she attended screenings, “I would have so many women come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Thank you for telling my story’, for telling that story, for representing women.”
On Sunday, she’ll be taking her two kids, Ava, 12 and Oscar, 17, to the screening (a certain Mr Jackman will be in attendance too). She’s looking forward to that, though she admits it “will be kind of weird”.
Will it be confronting for them – and for Ava in particular – to watch such a story?
“Yeah, I’m sure it will be,” she says. “But I hope it’s good for her seeing Mum kick some ass.”