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Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. She was an assistant on Sleeping Dogs, did continuity for Goodbye Pork Pie and production managed Smash Palace. Between teaching film and media studies, she directed a clutch of shorts, several of them award winners, with one, The Beach, screening at Cannes.

After decades in the business, she has finally made her feature directorial debut with Vermilion. Scheffmann undoubtedly has experience and a deep feeling for film, and bringing original local productions to life can be arduous. It feels rather cruel, then, to say that Vermilion is scattered, disjointed and, at times, woefully underthought.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The story follows Darcy (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), a successful pianist-composer with synaesthesia – that most enchanting of neurological traits, in which sounds appear as colours. The price of success, however, is a strained relationship with her daughter, Zoe (Emily Campbell). Early on, she receives another diagnosis, a far more ominous one, that adds urgency to the planning for Zoe’s upcoming wedding.

There’s something interesting in Scheffmann’s cool and diffuse style. Yet the film is crammed with extraneous details, littered with pointless manufactured crises and crowded with characters whose connections are not altogether clear.

Guy Montgomery, a comedian with a devilish grin and a porno moustache, is wildly miscast as Zoe’s fiancé. And the final resolution, which ought to be poignant, instead feels callous and selfish. To be sure, what hobbles the film is not obtuseness or ambiguity but a lack of clarity. I suspect something has gone badly wrong in the edit, which seems like a great shame and a wasted opportunity.

Buried inside the guts of this film is a good story about an anguished relationship, an artist whose mind is coming undone amid the heady sultriness of an Auckland summer and the incessant buzz of cicadas. Two moments in particular accentuate what might have been. Both are between Darcy and a visiting Irish actor (Peter Feeney). She asks him to don a cassock, to play a priest and provide counsel without the attendant guilt or demands for absolution. Here, Scheffmann’s writing finally lands an emotional blow. The scenes are allowed to settle, and the actors do, too.

Vermilion is not fundamentally flawed, just overstuffed and disorderly. It really ought to have been pared down to its most elemental motivation: a mother trying to reclaim the love of her daughter.

Video: Rialto Distribution

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.