Adapting existing works from other artistic fields is a deeply popular commercial strategy in the film industry at present. The new Australian drama, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, is not just the promising debut feature of Sotiris Dounoukos – it is the screen adaptation of Helen Garner’s best-selling non-fiction book about the destructive relationship of an apparently happy, successful, young Canberra couple in the 1990s. Dounoukos’ film starts where Garner does – with the triple-zero call between Anu (Maggie Naouri) and a male dispatcher, the audio floating over wide, sinister shots of the Canberran landscape and the murder unseen. The question is never whodunit, but why: an inversion of the usual detective procedural. We then cut back to Joe (Jerome Myer) and Anu’s first night together, and the instant headiness of their romance is established. As the relationship progresses, something inside Anu seems to break. Her skin crawls, her muscles waste away. And as her hypochondria takes charge of her sanity, the plot marches inexorably towards a climax reported so scandalously by news media in 1997 and so shruggingly overlooked by the couple’s friends.
But there is a central character missing from Dounoukos’ adaptation: Garner. As a writer of true crime works, Garner’s thematic preoccupation has always been blurred morality. In this case, of lovers Anu Singh and Joe Cinque, Garner added herself as protagonist as a way of entering a foggy moral landscape, of making that landscape accessible to the reader in an emotionally-connected and hyper-personalised way. Garner builds herself as a character whose eyes become the reader’s own, so as to bear witness to an unfathomable crime. That character is an obsessive journalist treading carefully, fearfully and compulsively – and through her, we are able to navigate our own wayward path through the specifics of a young, good man’s murder and the court proceedings that followed. Garner’s own journey became the new story of Cinque’s death and legacy. In this way, the book is not really the story of Cinque at all, but of how the author got to know him two years after his murder.
Garner’s own journey became the new story of Cinque’s death and legacy.
What happens to the story of Joe Cinque when you remove the journalist as a protagonist, when you swap Garner’s story within the story for the straightforward cinematic narrative of a conventional murder drama? The answers speak to how the relationship between literature and film is being constantly reworked, as the film industry looks to other fields to replenish itself creatively and commercially.
In her role as a gonzo narrator, Garner has long been interested in ‘women at the end of their tether’. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, her motivation is personal: by her own admission, in this period of her life, with her marriage collapsed, Garner had reached her own loose end, finding new forward motion in the Singh story. She continues this narrative strategy in This House of Grief, as does Anna Krien in Night Games, Anna Funder in Stasiland and Chloe Hooper in The Tall Man. A specific relationship forms between these writers and their readers: it’s quite intimate. Despite the non-fiction tag, all these women write themselves into the narrative as fallible reporters full of doubt and curiosity, taking the reader into the woods and embracing situations of uncertainty. In the crime film genre, this role – our navigator, our beacon – is usually taken by a police officer or investigator steering us through the case: think of Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, Elisabeth Moss’ character in Top of the Lake or Jake Gyllenhaal amateur sleuth in Zodiac.
In the book, Joe Cinque’s death, the trauma and waste of it, the injustices and manipulations of the trial, all vaporise and condense around Garner, who questions the pathologisation of Singh as disordered by a borderline personality and, therefore, of diminished culpability. After the judge issues his verdict, Garner runs from the press surge in front of the courthouse, and perhaps more broadly from the sticky mess of human behaviour into which she has plunged herself: ‘I crouched against the cold concrete rim of a planter box and howled into my hanky. I didn’t even know who I was crying for.’
In its detailed imagining of Singh’s itinerary of murder and its focus on the constellation of academically clever yet morally ambivalent friends who attended suicide parties but failed to intervene, Dounoukos’ film is involving. But it absolves itself of Garner’s planter-box howls and confusions. In place of that shivering incomprehensibility is a tale of unchecked mental illness that progresses into homicide. Where Garner’s story was about the inability to comprehend murder as a concept, the film is about one murder laid bare. It is a much simpler affair in terms of storytelling and cinematic form, and it is a shame. Though firmly in the crime genre, Joe Cinque’s Consolation is framed as a drama rather than the paranoid psychological thriller for which the material and the character of Anu begs, and it keens toward the love-story-gone-wrong end of the crime spectrum. Quite simply, this story needs a Helen – not to be understood, but to be moralised, so that Singh can be defined and judged and Cinque and his extant family can be vindicated.
Where Garner’s story was about the inability to comprehend murder as a concept, the film is about one murder laid bare.
In place of Garner’s strong narrative voice, and the resulting bond between the writer and the reader, the film has a gap to fill. It shows more back story, with a bigger role and a viewpoint for Joe – only a ghost in the book – and some informed speculation about what exactly happened during the week Anu drugged him. Her trial does not appear in the film, its outcome merely appearing as an epigraph, as in so many true crime films. The exclusion of the trial is an important point, because it removes the core theme of anger at justice and replaces it with whether Anu was mentally ill or responsible. Garner’s subtext tells us she thinks Singh is just a rotten person, but the film equivocates, its characterisation of Anu less vivid.
Something here has been flattened: despite its quite lovely grimness, the film does not have either the pure intentionality or dark dreamlike lucidity of Foxtel’s recent series The Kettering Incident, which gives its genre intersection of science fiction and gothic mystery a more deliberate and sensitive treatment. Maybe the more difficult but rewarding theme would have been not morality but amorality, as in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another tale of murder enabled by a smug, self-contained milieu of young students.
But to me, the film’s great quality is its impression of our nation’s capital as an ordered, inorganic and essentially disinterested place of flowing roundabouts and low-squatting buildings. Anu is not evil, but the location is. Tightly-cropped wide shots show a horizonless city sunk in low hills, actively careless of its citizens. This was a city that, despite its wealth and the presence of the country’s leaders, accommodated a huge heroin epidemic in the 1990s which formed the backdrop to Cinque’s death. Much of the murder’s planning is shown in share-house lounge-rooms, dim with cigarette smoke and swathed in an autumnal palette that intensifies to crimson as Joe sucks his last breaths through brown vomit. There are some lovely, tiny Australianisms built into the set design: a Yalumba Chardonnay cask sitting idly on Joe and Anu’s dining table for days. That ordinary suburban claustrophobia and apathy is palpable: life goes on, the film is saying – and that is a scary truth indeed.
The unsatisfying fact is that the truth about Singh, or even why these stranger-than-fiction events happen, is opaque: the horror of that unknowability is the whole point of the tale. In reality, I don’t think the film is really based, as the title and closing credits suggest, on Garner’s book. The film’s opening title, ‘based on a true story’, is more accurate.
Perhaps it’s not possible to translate the gonzo narrator, leading us into a dark-edged forest and getting lost with us, to cinema. Perhaps the material really cried out for a documentary treatment, or a hybrid format that could use fictionalised sequences to take us into Singh’s frantic inner world. Perhaps there are just limits to the creative possibilities of adapting dense literary works into hundred-minute dramas. Or perhaps Garner’s presence in the chaos was what hung the tale together: because we can’t get inside Singh’s head, we need to get inside Garner’s.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation is in cinemas now. The book is available now at Readings.