"Hotel Sorrento" has lots on its mind but expresses it with exceptional grace. Nothing less than the nature of the Australian character in all its contradictions is what concerns its makers, but it emerges through a classic intimate drama of reunion, as three sisters gather at their sunny, spacious family home in the seaside resort of Sorrento in the state of Victoria. So hospitable has the Moynihan place become over the years that it's a virtual hotel.
Today, however, the atmosphere is anything but friendly. Long a London resident, Meg (Caroline Goodall) and her English publisher-husband (Nicholas Bell) have arrived for a visit in the wake of her well-received novel, which she regards as purely fictional but which her sisters believe is so autobiographical that she has merely changed the names.
Also down for a visit is the Manhattan-based Pippa (Tara Morice), who's back in Australia to explore the possibilities of setting up a chain of American sandwich stand franchises. Meanwhile, Hillary (Caroline Gillmer), a widower with a 16-year-old son (Ben Thomas), has stayed at home, looking after her widowed father (Ray Barrett) and running a coffee shop. Nearby is a divorcee (Joan Plowright), who has a weekend place in Sorrento and has a frequent guest (John Hargreaves), who is editor of a bimonthly paper concerned with Australian cultural issues.
Director Richard Franklin, himself an Australian expatriate with a long stint in Hollywood, and his co-writer Peter Fitzpatrick have pulled off an effective adaptation of Hannie Rayson's play. Wisely, they have opened it up only when it seems natural to have done so.
"Hotel Sorrento" plays like a contemporary Chekhov drama in which personal matters interact with larger issues. Franklin doesn't worry about being too talky, nor should he when he's working with such crisp, witty and intelligent dialogue and actors.
On one level, then, the sisters thrash out their feelings for each other while trying to sidestep an old secret that links them painfully. Meanwhile, there emerges a raft of questions about Australian cultural identity--questions dealing with a lingering sense of colonial inferiority and machismo , with the resentment toward critical expatriates, with the waning yet pervasive influence of Britain and the growing impact of American cultural/economic imperialism.
It is no small achievement that "Hotel Sorrento" manages to deal with all of these matters and more with style and grace--and to involve our hearts as well as minds.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: There are a few strong words, a thicket of intellectual and emotional issues; suitable for mature early teens.
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'Hotel Sorrento' Caroline Goodall: Meg Moynihan Caroline Gillmer: Hillary Tara Morice: Pippa Moynihan Joan Plowright: Marge Morrisey Ray Barrett: Wal Moynihan Nicholas Bell: Edwin Ben Thomas: Troy John Hargreaves: Dick Bennett A Castle Hill release. Producer-director Richard Franklin. Co-producer Helen Watts. Screenplay by Franklin & Peter Fitzpatrick, from Hannie Rayson's play. Cinematographer Geoff Burton. Editor David Pulbrook. Costumes Lisa Meagher. Music Nerida Tyson Chew. Production designer Tracey Watt. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
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