In Eye of the Storm, an eccentric brother and sister kill time at their homestead in Australia while they wait for their sickly, wealthy mother—who wears a variety of pastel wigs—to decide who goes in her will. Judy Davis is in it. So is Charlotte Rampling. There's platypus fur and creepy German cabaret performed in a bedroom by a German servant. Sold! Right? Well, maybe.
Brother Basil (Geoffrey Rush) has dragged his heels in from London, where past acting glory has gained him a knighthood and where he claims to have many irons in the fire of West End despite a unanimously panned recent performance as Lear. Sister Dorothy (Davis) is fresh from France and a broken-up marriage to a prince. She maintains her laughable title as princess but didn't get squat in the divorce settlement. That's why she's impatiently tapping the toes of her high heels against every piece of furniture she rubs up against, waiting for mother Elizabeth (Rampling) to croak.
Basil narrates the proceedings as if he's giving stage directions for a play, and the movie begins with people opening curtains and ends with people closing them. Life is a stage, see, and the makeup that Elizabeth's caretaker puts on her to disguise her decay is no different than the eyeliner Basil wears to do his crappy Lear. Basil has become an ersatz version of himself, unable to perform sexually unless his gals put on one of mommy's dresses, and while Dorothy has tried to remake herself in the image of a princess, her hard edges are just barely disguising what a wreck she is. Basil, whether he's aware of it or not, seems to have given up the fight to keep up appearances, with sauce on his sleeve and buttons popping off his vest.
In one smart and funny scene, Basil gets some roadside pies for himself and Dorothy. As he delights in the junky pleasure of the treat, Dorothy acts disgusted by the food but can't stop eating, and between mouthfuls says, "We're not supposed to eat in Mummy's car!" and then they both crack up. The scene pinpoints the way the siblings are the same and different in the same moment, and shows both the appeal and creepiness of their eccentricity. Director Fred Schepisi's weird zooms and arbitrary framing in some parlor scenes aim for the same thing with more questionable results.
Schepisi (Last Orders) layers on this stuff about performance and appearance, and then layers it on some more. That's all there really is to Eye of the Storm: lots of scenes that aren't quite as good as that car scene, all playing with similar ideas. The repetitive images and lines of dialogue that reinforce the idea of life as a performance aren't as captivating as the weirder stuff (platypus fur, German cabaret), but they contain the most concrete ideas in the movie. The movie's title is a little too accurate, though, as these ideas all swarm around an empty center.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Surface appearances."