2 September 2022

'Blaze' is a powerful unmissable film about trauma and recovery from one of Australia's great artists

| Marcus Kelson
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girl with eye decorations

Blaze explores the relationship between fantasy and traumatic reality. Photo: Supplied.

Blaze opens with a child, a toddler, staring at a painting. It is clear that she sees things the rest of us don’t, and never will. It is a telling moment.

We move to Blaze, aged 12 and eating an ice cream. She walks up a laneway in the Eastern Suburbs where she lives, only to stumble upon a man, Jake (Josh Lawson), raping and killing a woman, Hannah (Yael Stone, who starred in Orange is the New Black).

This is the premise on which the film is based. We move from there to the police station, counselling, a court appearance, and the awful but necessary arrangements that need to be undertaken as she has identified the rapist and killer.

On the witness box for her one brief court appearance, the Defence Counsel asks her brutally, “why didn’t you scream?”

Unsurprisingly, Blaze (played by relative newcomer Julia Savage) then turns inward, unable to cope with the real horror of the events she has seen or the very indifferent way she has been treated since. Essentially, she goes into a state of catatonic shock.

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Her father, Luke (Simon Baker), a kind and gentle man is at his wit’s end before reluctantly committing her to a psychiatric ward for treatment.

We discover that before and after her hospital stay, Blaze has a giant, imaginary (actually a fabulous puppet) dragon in her room at home. He oversees and protects her with a raft of ceramic toys she describes as her army. As she scours the internet for Hannah’s killer, she incorporates the dead woman into her world of make-believe and grief.

Blaze was co-written and directed (her debut behind the camera) by Archibald Prize-winning painter Del Kathryn Barton, partly based on her own childhood experience.

Recently interviewed for Harper’s Bazaar, Del asks why should you be defined by something that has happened to you when you have overcome it or even flourished.

The women in her story are protagonists, agents in their own stories. But sometimes, those agents need to heal and recover. Like Blaze, Barton says, her childhood was ripped away from her, but her imagination gave it back.

Barton’s psychedelic art informs most of this film – parts of it are almost phantasmagorical. There are other themes explored here as Blaze enters womanhood which can also bring its own strength. She has witnessed an awful event, but throughout the film, I kept thinking it may define her, but it won’t destroy her.

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There’s a second stint in a psych ward, but her counsellor is more of a listener this time. After Blaze is finished, her counsellor says two very important things: “what you experienced will echo throughout your entire life” and, crucially, “healing is not linear.”

We know now that Blaze is on a path of strength and controlled anger at the man and what she saw him do. In a series of moments, especially around her dad, we know she has changed and is in control again.

The performances here are utterly extraordinary. Julia Savage’s Blaze has to carry a vast range of simultaneous emotions throughout the movie and does so with an ease I’ve rarely seen.

Simon Baker as her father Luke is the best thing I think I’ve seen him do. He is lost and trying to do the right thing, but there are no ground rules or pathways for dealing with this; his sensitivity is incredible.

Yael Stone only turns up in fantasy sequences, but the fact she returned to Australia and committed to work here after a successful stint in the US clearly shows her dedication to domestic cinema.

Blaze, in brief, outdoor moments, has some of the atmospherics of another great Australian film, Lantana, and there are imaginative flourishes that made me think fleetingly of Pan’s Labyrinth.

But these were only passing thoughts. This movie is perhaps one of the most original, thought-provoking, and at times difficult Australian films I’ve ever seen. What happens at the start of the movie is devastating; what we see by the end is a young woman who has power and is in control. I cannot recommend this film highly enough – five out of five for me.

Blaze is now showing at Dendy and Palace Electric.

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