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The reunion that destroyed a family.

Writer: Antony J. Bowman

Director: Antony J. Bowman
Producers: Henri Safran/Basil Appleby
Cast: Bill Kerr, Rowena Wallace, Ray Barrett, Norman Kaye, Jeanie Drynan, Robin Bowering, Brett Climo, Carol Raye, Marian Dworakowski, Rebekah Elmaloglou

That Relatives is such an entertaining and diverting piece of drama stems not from any great action or excitement in the plot. It tells the story of a family celebration on a country property. People drink and eat together, squabble, engage in tactlessness and insults. There's a touch of sex, drunkenness, a few scares with the children - just your average, ordinary family party really.

And therein lies the movie's strength. It is outstandingly natural in its portrayal of people and their reactions to each other. The script has none of the banality so often heard in Australian drama. These writers have clearly spent time observing and listening: the characters' conversations and gestures are real.

The first character we see it Claire Southerly (Alyson Best), mid-20s daughter of Geoffrey, the sole remaining Southerly living at the old family property, Pinefall. She drops a plate on the stone floor of the homestead's veranda dining room.

"You know that was your grandmother's plate?" she whispers to herself, anticipating her father's reaction.

Two minutes later, Geoffrey (Ray Barrett) fulfills her expectation. "You know that was you grandmother's plate?' he says, fussing around the festive table. From that one exchange, the relationship of father and daughter is set.

Meanwhile, the other family members are driving from Sydney for the party. Geoffrey's father (Bill Kerr), now living in a nursing home, is 80 and travels to his birthday party with his granddaughter, Nancy Petersen (Rowena Wallace), her husband Peter (Michael Aitken), and their three children, Jamie, Rebecca and Kelly.

Jamie, a precocious brat of a kid with braces, complains about having to sit next to his smelly great-grandfather.

"Why does your mother always yell at me?" the grandfather asks Rebecca. "Cause you're deaf" she shouts back.

No cuteness here. People's annoyances with those familiar to them are shown in all their frail glory. But so honestly shown that these foibles make the characters endearing.

Relatives gets the little things right, and the rest follows. In perhaps the most dramatic scene of the film, when Geoffrey is leading up to the revelation that he will sell Pinefall because there is no-one to carry it on, the camera moves periodically from the family action in the room, to Grandfather opening his presents in the corner. He petulantly pushes away a half-opened cardigan, then says "Good God" in amazement and disgust at a huge plaster vase. Such constant focusing on the different activities of a family day make the action full and rich.

The drama is subtle and understated - just like disagreements at family gatherings, with people trying to keep the emotions under wraps for the sake of politeness. The covers slip a little after lunch, when the red wine is flowing a little too easily. Claire says she will leave Australia to live with her married Czechoslovak lover in Linz; her brother Ross (Brett Climo), cocained to the eyeballs, says he will drop out of university; and Aunty Joan's (Carol Raye's) wimpish husband Alf (Robin Bowering) actually does it on the hayshed floor with her cousin-in-law Catherine (Jeanie Drynan), in what is one of the funniest scenes of the film. 

-Judith Whel

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