Film review: Beyond the Known World

by Peter Calder / 06 May, 2017

Sia Trokenheim in Beyond  the Known World.

A drama about parents searching for their backpacker daughter can’t quite find its way.

The first fruit of a New Zealand-India co-production treaty stars Sia Trokenheim (Step Dave) and Australian veteran David Wenham as Julie and Carl Hansen, a newly separated couple thrown together on a trip to India to find their backpacker daughter, Eva, who seems to have gone missing in action.

Director Pan Nalin, best known here for Samsara – a slightly clunky 2001 feature about a Buddhist monk exploring his rambunctious libido – gives a wonderful visual account of not just the sweeping vistas of Himachal Pradesh in the country’s upland north, but also the narrow alleys, cafes and cheap guesthouses of backpacker India.

There’s more to it than scenery, though: some exceptionally deft narrative moments include a wordless opening sequence, in which the two parents wait at opposite sides of the arrivals hall at Auckland Airport as it slowly empties. It’s a perfect demonstration of the wisdom that a movie should show, not tell.

The Hansens’ recent separation adds useful spice to their on-screen relationship, but the story unfolds as a string of narrative bullet points that feel tired and formulaic: old resentments; corrupt officials; a dreadlocked Glaswegian dope fiend. More tragic than the possibility that Eva’s had her organs harvested is the sight of Emmanuelle Béart as an ageing hippie; her one-time beauty, now ravaged by plastic surgery, makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Wenham and Trokenheim turn in valiant performances, though both are acted off the screen by Chelsie Preston Crayford as a Danish pothead who has hidden her vulnerability under a carapace of surly disdain. In the film’s best scene, Carl asks her how long it’s been since she spoke to her mum and pushes his phone across the table: in that moment, the three lost souls exude a tragic nobility, and a braver film-maker would have rolled the end credits.

Instead, we have an ending, filmed in airline-ad slow motion, that is so preposterous and implausible that it obliterates the emotional credibility the film has, stutteringly, managed to build.

It all feels a bit generationally wrong, too. It’s set in the present day, so its parents would have been part of the backpacking generation that relied on month-old aerogrammes for communication with home. Even in the iPhone era, they should have remembered the joy of being out of touch: maybe that’s why Eva went AWOL in the first place. ••


This article was first published in the April 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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