Director: Heath Davis
Screenwriter: Heath Davis
Runtime: 99 mins.
Australian release date: 25 October 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 12 October 2018.
Book Week, the follow-up film to Australian writer/director Heath Davis’s terrific but little-seen 2016 movie Broke, has strong autobiographical origins. The film’s chief protagonist is a resentful secondary school teacher with literary ambitions and Davis says, “the script was first penned in 2010 during my time as a frustrated high school English teacher doggedly trying to get his first feature film made whilst reluctant to accept the idea that my lifelong dream may never eventuate.”
In an early scene, we find mid-forties teacher Nicholas Cutler reading aloud to an English class of bored teenagers from Matthew Arnold’s 19th century poem Dover Beach…
“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
… and these final lines of the poem seem to encapsulate Nicholas’s problems; he’s caught up in his own dreams, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else, bitter and at war with the world. He regards himself as an “undiscovered literary genius” and once had a successful novel published, but that was years ago. Now, when not at Little Fields High School, he spends his nights drinking and womanising because, in his mind, he’s only biding his time until he can arrange another book deal. When his agent (Rhys Muldoon) tells him that he’s found a publisher interested in his crappy YA horror manuscript called World War V, he thinks his ship has come in and he promptly hands in his resignation to the school’s jaded Principal (Tiriel Mora, excellent as always). He’s so self-centred that he doesn’t bother telling his boss and girlfriend Lee (Susan Prior) that he’s leaving, but he agrees to stay on for one final week so you know she’s going to find out. It also happens to be the school’s annual Book Week, when everyone dresses up as their favourite literary character; all he has to do is keep himself nice for seven days to show his publishers he’s not the liability he once was. What could possibly go wrong?
The screenplay for Book Week begins well but, regrettably, Davis can’t keep up the appearance that underneath his protagonist’s cynical façade beats a heart of gold. You have to hope that his script is not too autobiographical because Nicholas soon becomes thoroughly unlikeable as misdeed piles on misdeed. He’s unrelentingly selfish, so much so that, instead of wanting this unhappy man to succeed, you end up hoping he gets his just desserts. He even tries to use a troubled Somali stoner (Thuso Lekwape), who he’s supposed to be mentoring, to his advantage. Alan Dukes does a good job of bringing the character to life but it’s a pretty thankless task, especially as our hero doesn’t even seem to read or write much, a fairly major oversight in a film about a budding author. The supporting cast is comprised of many familiar faces, including Prior and Mora, and there are solid turns from the likes of Toby Schmitz, Maya Stange, Nicholas Hope, Steve Le Marquand and Khan Chittenden, among others. They all acquit themselves well in small but important roles. Then, all of a sudden, it’s all over, with little rationale for what happens or Nicholas’s behaviour. It’s as if the crew ran out of time (or money?), so decided to wrap it up as quickly as possible. It’s a shame because there’s a much better movie here, struggling to get out.