For me, Joe Cinque’s Consolation was the most anticipated film of the year. The screenplay (written by Sotiris Dounoukos) was adapted from Helen Garner’s non-fiction novel Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law. It was a book that I devoured within two days and felt absolutely crazed and incensed by. Through Garner’s eyes, I grieved Joe Cinque and I felt miserable about Anu Singh, and after reading it, I tracked down court transcripts to try and make sense of the tragedy that had occurred.
Through the media and of course, Garner’s book, the crime is well documented. But if you’re not familiar with the story, in the plainest terms, this is what occurred. In 1997, Anu Singh invited a group of friends over to the house she shared with boyfriend Joe Cinque for a dinner party. As it happened, this would be her farewell dinner. Depressed, Anu was ready to kill herself and take Joe with her, unbeknownst to him. More astoundingly, many of the guests at the dinner party knew of her plans, and believed that Joe, too, was suicidal and wanted to die. Throughout dinner, Anu drugged Joe’s coffee with Rohypnol and later, in bed, injected him with a lethal dose of heroin.
But of course, it’s much more complicated than that, and the complexity and humanity of this true story is what compelled such an emotional reaction from me when I read Garner’s book.
Unfortunately, Dounoukos’ film (he directed as well as writing the screenplay) did not stir up the same emotion in me. Both the novel and the film begin in the same way – the panicked phone call from Anu to triple zero, asking if vomiting blood from a heroin overdose is a bad sign while the dispatcher tries to extract an address from her to send an ambulance to. This is where the novel and the film diverge. While Garner’s novel begins with her hearing of Singh’s trial and attending the hearings in Canberra, the film takes the audience back to the night where Anu met Joe, and we spend the next two hours watching how two people in a bar could go from charmed strangers to a murky murder/suicide pact.
Played by the exquisitely beautiful Maggie Naouri, Anu is charismatic but erratic. She is conceited but enchanting all at once, and her charisma draws in not just her lover, but also her classmate Madhavi Rao (Sacha Joseph), who is captivated by her. Anu and Madhavi’s relationship dynamic is extreme, but terrifyingly plausible to anyone who has ever had that kind of friend – the dramatic type, the one who only ever talks about themselves, but you go along with it because they’re smart and interesting. In many ways, Madhavi was the most complex character: she is Anu’s accomplice and helps Anu buy the Rohypnol and heroin, then invites the friends over for the dinner party and helps get rid of the evidence. Surely, it could not have been in an attempt to get closer to Anu, as she knew Anu planned to end her own life, too. Understanding Madhavi’s motives are, to me, a lot harder than understanding Anu’s.
Anu has convinced herself and all around her that she is wasting away, dying from a terminal and incurable flesh-eating disease. She blames Joe, which is why she wants to “take him with her” when she kills herself. He provided her once with Ipecac – a one-off vomit-inducing serum. When Anu complains about this to Madhavi, Madhavi says, “Did you ask him for it?” and Anu shrugs it off – as if that were beside the point.
This moment of Anu’s melodrama, and many others throughout the film, provoked an eye roll from me and a collective, annoyed sigh from the audience in the theatre. Anu is hard to identify with – hard to pin down, erratic one moment and cool the next – and because of this, it is a surprise that she is the focaliser of the film. Being up-close to Anu, who remains at a distance in Garner’s novel (she and her family refused to speak to Garner) means that we lose some of the finesse of Garner’s original work.
Would then, the solution have been making Joe the protagonist of the film? Jerome Meyer plays Joe Cinque. He feels easy going, his lop-sided smile relaxed. My sister leant over to me during the film at one point and whispered, “She’ going to shoot Bambi,” and it’s difficult to see him as anything other than this for the majority of the film. His key moment of characterisation comes close to the end, during the farewell dinner. Joe speaks Italian, and expects Len (Jackson Tozer), who has boasted of being fluent, to speak it back. Len struggles, clearly having lied, and instead of embarrassing him, Joe helps him out. “It must just be my accent,” Joe says. It sent pangs through me, realising that his kind young man was about to be robbed of his life, and that the people around the table were about to let it happen.
This is the strongest message that the film delivers; that of the moral culpability of the dinner party guests. The characters around the table share many long, meaningful glances with each other and the dialogue with Joe dances on the knife’s edge of black comedy, as Tanya (Laura Gordon), who has been told that Anu and Joe would commit suicide together that night, asks Joe what’s on for the weekend. Joe, already slightly drugged on Rohypnol, replies “a long sleep.”
I felt that Garner’s voice would have aided the narrative. There were things about the novel that I absolutely adored, such as the character of Joe’s mother who only had a very small amount of screen time in the film adaptation.
Adaptations are difficult because the filmmaker must cater for viewers who have never read the book, and then also for viewers like me. If you’ve ever read any non-fiction Helen Garner book, then you are familiar with the comfort of her first-person observations; the way she processes the grim crimes that unfold in front of her. Garner’s voice is simply missing from this film, which is less about consolation for the victim, and more about watching the tragic circumstances of his death unfold around him. I think, perhaps, it may all be in the name – rather than producing a close rendering and adaptation of Garner’s novel, Dounoukos has very much made a film based around Garner’s novel.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation is currently showing at selected cinemas Australia-wide