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Somersault 
Written by: on April 18th, 2006

Theatrical Release Dates:
Australia, 2004
Director: Cate Shortland
Writer: Cate Shortland
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington, Lynette Curran, Nathaniel Dean, Erik Thomson, Leah Purcell, Hollie Andrew, Paul Gleeson

DVD Released: August 8th, 2005
Approximate Running Time:
102 minutes
Aspect Ratio:
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating:
15
Sound:
Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Digital 2.0 English
DVD Release:
Metrodome
Region Coding:
Region 2 Pal (UK)
Retail Price:
£19.99

Watching Somersault is a mesmerising but uncredibly frustrating experience. On the one hand, the film is at all times beautiful to behold and features some magnificent performances, but, on the other, its plot is as meandering and aimless as the life of its protagonist, and by attempting to say something incredibly profound in a minimalist manner, it ends up not saying much at all.

The storyline could have been written on the back of a postage stamp. Heidi (Abbie Cornish) lives with her single mother Nicole (Olivia Pigeot). One morning, after being caught in a compromising position with her mother’s boyfriend, she runs away from home and makes her way to Jindabyne, a ski resort. There, she hooks up with Joe (Sam Worthington), with whom she begins a romantic relationship. Heidi is a deeply disturbed young lady, however, and Joe quickly finds that he is unable to provide her with what she wants.

The central problem with Somersault stems from the fact that it is structured as a character study, and yet Heidi is a completely inscrutable character. A 16-year-old who is part adult (her constant need to feel intimacy through sex) and part child (her scrapbook, nursey rhymes and overall sullen, awkward demeanour), I can see exactly what first-time writer/director Cate Shortland was trying to achieve, and yet there is something incredibly non-committal about the whole affair. Shortland shies away from actually making any sort of statement about Heidi’s emotional problems – perhaps because there are no easy answers, but it makes for frustrating viewing nonetheless. Characters have a habit of speaking in needlessly cryptic half-sentences, and the ending, in which Shortland essentially just pushes the reset button and has Heidi return home, is highly unsatisfactory.

What saves the blasé script is the execution of the film itself. Photographed by Robert Humphreys, Somersault looks gorgeous, its heavily saturated gel lighting making a welcome break from the current trend to desaturate any “edgy” and “serious” films to the point of being nearly monochromatic. Meanwhile, in the central role, young Abbie Cornish is a revelation, throwing herself courageously into a role that requires a great deal of frankness and sincerity. The other performers fare well too, but Cornish consistently overshadows them. As a mood piece, the film can be considered genuinely successful – it’s just a shame that it’s nothing like as insightful as it thinks it is.

The DVD:

Somersault is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, opening up the matte slightly from its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. This is a very good transfer that does a great service to Robert Humphreys’ eye-catching photography, rendering the colours well and showing a nice amount of detail at all times. The source material is at times slightly grainy, in keeping, it can be assumed, with the film stock used to shoot it. However, there is some filtering going on which causes the grain patterns to freeze, while an inadequate bit rate in some of the darker scenes results in a “swimming effect”. Overall, though, viewers should be pretty happy with this presentation.

Two Dolby Digital mixes are included: stereo and 5.1. There isn’t a huge amount of difference between the two, with the 5.1 track being surprisingly front-focused. Indeed, the rear channels only kick in on a handful of occasions, such as to add atmosphere to a party scene and to emphasise the sound of vehicles. The dialogue, however, is crystal clear throughout, and optional English subtitles have been included for the film, but not the extras.

A wealthy array of bonus features have been provided, and while a full-length audio commentary is nowhere to be found, Cate Shortland does show up to provide optional commentary on 8 deleted scenes. This extra material is, for the most part, fairly extraneous, although a handful of scenes, if included in the final cut, might have helped to beef up some of the less developed roles in the film.

A 25-minute documentary entitled Inside the Snow Dome provides a revealing look at the making of the film. Various participants, including Shortland, Cornish and producer Anthony Anderson, attempt to explain what the film is “about”, but their musings don’t really amount to anything particularly insightful, nor do me convince me that there is any sort of profound message behind all the meandering. Still, it’s interesting to see where the cast and crew were coming from, and a plethora of on-set footage provides an enjoyable glimpse at the production process.

Cinematographer Robert Humphreys also chips in with a 15-minute on location interview. Given that the film’s visuals are perhaps its greatest strength, this proves to be the most interesting of the various featurettes, with Humphreys taking us through what he was trying to achieve. Of particular interest is the revelation that the striking colours were achieved primarily through lab work rather than digital manipulation.

Also included is Shortland’s earlier short film Flowergirl, a 19-minute piece about a Japanese tourist who, while visiting Australia, falls in love with a local flower girl. Presented in Japanese with burnt-in English subtitles, the image quality isn’t great, with some noticeable ghosting suggesting an NTSC to PAL standards conversion. The film is interesting, however, not so much for its plot but for the fact that its cinematography shows an earlier variation of the style achieved in Somersault.

The final extras are Somersault’s trailer and a piece entitled “Sountrack”, which turns out to be nothing more than a static screen of text advertising the soundtrack album and listing some of the awards it has won.

Somersault is an undeniably beautiful film with some magnificent performances, but I can’t help thinking that it’s not really deserving of the lavish praise heaped on it by so many critics. Metrodome’s DVD, however, is a thoroughly satisfying affair, with a nice transfer and some revealing extras.

This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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