In October 1997, Anu Singh, a law student at Canberra’s Australian National University, killed her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. She had first administered Rohypnol to him and then, when he was asleep, twice injected him with potentially lethal doses of heroin. Singh and a fellow law student, Madhavi Rao, were charged and put on trial for Cinque’s murder. Singh was found guilty of manslaughter and Rao exonerated of any involvement in the crime.
Helen Garner attended the trials and interviewed family members, fellow students, police and judicial workers, and from her investigations wrote the book Joe Cinque’s Consolation, one of the great works of Australian literature. Garner’s intent was to explore, beyond the letter of the law, the greater question of the morality of not only the sordid and disturbing events that led to Cinque’s death but also that of contemporary legal and psychiatric practices. The question that haunts Garner’s book was whether justice was truly served in the trial. And from that, an even more complicated question arises: does rehabilitation of the convicted require us to ignore the continuing reverberations of grief and suffering of such a heinous crime? Joe Cinque was killed but the lives of his parents and that of his brother were also destroyed.
Sotiris Dounoukos’s film shares the same title but I think it is a disservice to both the film and the original book to understand his work as an adaptation. Co-scripted by Dounoukos and Matt Rubinstein, the film begins with the same distraught conversation that opens the book, where Singh rings the emergency services to report that Joe is dying but, whether from deliberate prevarication or the overwhelming paroxysms of guilt, is unable to make coherent sense and wastes precious time while her boyfriend is convulsing and vomiting blood on their bed. From this wrenching opening, the film flashes back to 1994, to Joe and Anu’s first meeting, and then charts the deterioration of their relationship and the increasing mental instability of Anu. For Dounoukos, who was a law student at ANU in the same year as Singh, it is clear what animates him as a filmmaker is the question of why so many of the friends and students around this couple condoned or at least allowed the events to escalate to such a tragic finale. Like the book, the film is a moral tale but the gravity of its exploration lies elsewhere, not in the consequences of the killing but in the cultural milieu that in part enabled it.
The great strength of the film is in the quiet purposefulness. This is Dounoukos’s first feature as a director, and he has assiduously avoided the temptation to self-consciously signal to an audience his cinematic erudition. The story is itself so incredible and bewildering that his detachment as a director – the measured use of mid-shot, the constant sense we have that we are observers, whether at a dinner party, in a workplace, in a uni library – earns our trust that the filmmakers are not going to pre-empt our responses to the tragedy. There is a danger in such realist objectivity, in that it takes time to build empathy with any of the characters, especially as we only can understand them in relationship to their interaction with others. Though Singh, Cinque and Rao are clearly the central protagonists, we are never at any point assured that we are seeing the world from only their point of view. This is initially alienating but the cumulative effect is to make vivid the social world they inhabit. The film builds momentum as we are introduced to more of their friends and acquaintances, and though we know the ending, suspense is generated and maintained right to the tragic end.
Canberra itself becomes one of the key characters in the film, as if it is through the refraction of light from this most maligned of cities that the other characters take shape. This, too, is initially distracting; we want to escape the bland suburban brick-veneer homes and wide empty streets in which most of the action takes place. But as a native to the city, Dounoukos also captures its surprising beauty and the serenity of its middle-class comfort. The very landscape of this city is pivotal in making sense of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, from the reek of privilege among the law students to the constant need to find distractions to overcome the boredom that is the price of such security. Dounoukos expertly conveys the casual drug use that is endemic to this student class, of how everyone is always a little bit drunk or high. The weightlessness of the city gets under their skin and everyone responds a little too slowly, as if their synapses aren’t quite working properly. No one is deliberately malevolent in their enabling of Singh; they are all just a bit too stoned to really want to get involved.
Clearly, Joe Cinque’s Consolation bares similarities in its purpose to films such as Rowan Woods’ The Boys and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, which also took on true crime atrocities as a filter through which to examine Australian society. But unlike those two films, Dounoukos’s focus isn’t on a disenfranchised underclass but the tertiary-educated middle class. I first saw the film at a screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it was clear that beyond evaluations of the film’s worth as cinema there was a real antagonism to its forensic interrogation of contemporary morality. The confident depiction of multicultural Australia in Joe Cinque’s Consolation is both exciting and long overdue; but this very taking of cosmopolitanism for granted also resists facile and reductive readings of Singh’s character and crimes. Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a morality tale but it carefully and deliberately undermines the fetishisation of victimhood and the moral absolutes that corrupt much of present-day identity politics. Dounoukos and Rubinstein are even-handed but they are no relativists. Only a moral idiot could come out of this film denying something monstrous occurred that October in 1997.
Maggie Naouri, who plays Anu Singh, has been rightly lauded for her performance. She is terrific, in both finding a core of vulnerability in her character but also in not masking the narcissism and destructiveness that makes Singh so frightening. I found myself resisting Naouri as an actor at the beginning but realised that it was because she was reminding me of women in my life who shared her troubling combination of attractiveness, potency, victim-posturing and complete selfishness. I had a similar resistance to Sacha Joseph as Rao, finding her adoration and steely acquiescence to Singh viscerally distasteful. But again, if I am honest, I was being made uncomfortable by the aspects of my youth I recognised in her devotion, in her choosing to indulge Singh’s fantasies and finding buttresses in pop psychology and undergraduate politics to justify her friend’s destructiveness. I think there will be many in the audience who will have a similar reaction, being reminded of the ruthless complicity that underpins such unequal friendships. In real life, Rao was overshadowed by Singh; on screen, Joseph holds her own.
Garner’s book was an attempt to honour Joe Cinque, to grant him a dignity that the tragic but also sensational and tawdry events that led to his murder denied him. Jerome Meyer, who plays Cinque in this film, has a seemingly impossible task to perform as an actor. He has to find a character that has thus far only existed in the shadows, and beyond that, to express a decency and sensitivity that runs the risk of making him a passive presence on the screen. Meyer finds his character through grace and stillness, in the gentleness with which he shares a cigarette with a stranger, in the natural ease that Joe has in his body, in persuading us that when he looks at Anu, even when she is at her most deranged, that he still sees something of the woman he fell in love with. His death still comes as a shock to us. It will never be enough, but Meyer’s lovely performance also gives Joe Cinque some consolation.
But the book is not the film. Joe’s mother, Maria, here played by Gia Carides, only appears in one scene, for instance. In the book, she was the main character, her grief and unforgiving hatred challenging our very notions of justice and morality. Singh and Rao refused to speak to Garner. Of course, in the film, they are given voice through the imaginations of the filmmaker, the writer and the performers, and though we must be aware that therefore they are interpretations not documentary, they are nevertheless convincing as such. And although this shift in focus inevitably humanises both women, it does not mitigate against the enormity of their crimes. That would be a travesty in a film bearing this title.
I have seen Joe Cinque’s Consolation twice now and with each viewing I find it equally compelling and troubling. Though the academic class makes up the bulk of the art-house audience, the critical professions and the majority of the media and film industries, it is rare that this class turns its gaze on itself. We usually prefer the distance provided by looking upon a Snowtown or Prospect. We prefer to believe the monsters live there.
Though clearly an insider as a law graduate and a director, I think there is something in Dounoukos’s coming from an immigrant background that allows him his clear-sighted objectivity. Maybe it is in the ruthlessness of his gaze that Maria Cinque can also find some consolation. Though it pivots on a different set of questions to those that animate Garner’s book, they are both works of scrupulousness and integrity. I didn’t want to see myself in Joe Cinque’s Consolation. But I did.