Proof (Australia, 1991)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Proof, the debut feature that earned Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse a chance to make studio films in America (How to Make an American Quilt, A Thousand Acres), was one of 1991's best-kept secrets. Although the movie received a small U.S. art-house run during the first half of 1992, even some stalwarts of the independent film scene missed it. Proof is a delightful and dark dramatic comedy that can be hilarious one moment and poignant the next. The script is intelligent, the acting is brilliant, and the overall result is fabulously entertaining.

The key to Proof's success is a simple ingredient that too many movies neglect in their eagerness to earn mass approval: complex character interaction between well-developed, unique individuals. These kinds of people are necessary to good storytelling, just as special effects are mandatory for a mindless summer blockbuster, and Proof's reliance upon them makes for a wholly satisfying movie-going experience. This film is about people, the forces that draw them together, and the barriers that keep them apart.

For Martin (Hugo Weaving), trusting has never been easy. He has been blind his entire life, and, as a boy, he believed his mother lied to him when she described the sights around him. Why? Because she could. Martin was sure that his mother never loved him, but merely put up with him out of a sense of responsibility. When she died at a young age, he thought it was all a ruse so she could get away from him. Those beliefs followed him into adulthood, where he became a recluse, unwilling to let anyone into his life or his heart beyond what was absolutely necessary. Martin has an interesting pastime for a blind man -- he's a photographer. He takes pictures, then has someone describe them to him. In his words, the photographs are proof that what he senses is what others see.

Martin has a housekeeper, a 30 year-old woman named Celia (Geneviève Picot). She's in love with him to the point of obsession. Like Martin, Celia dabbles in photography, but she only has one subject -- him. The walls and tables of her home are covered with pictures of Martin. But theirs is not a cordial relationship. Celia torments Martin and, in response, he humiliates her. Celia wants Martin's trust and respect, but those are things he is unwilling to part with, especially to her. So they continue in a state of unhealthy co-dependency, where each needs something from the other, and both are unhappy.

Enter Andy (Russell Crowe in an early role), the outsider who impels the relationship between Martin and Celia out of its stasis. Andy is a waiter at a local restaurant who befriends Martin, and, after a short while, becomes his regular describer of photographs. When Andy meets Celia, he is immediately smitten, but all she sees in Andy is a rival for Martin. So Celia concocts a plan designed to discredit Andy and finally give her what she wants -- Martin, all to herself.

The intricacy of this triangle is amazing, with almost every form of human emotion present in one form or another: love, hatred, envy, anger, bitterness, trust, joy, etc. No one's feelings are clear- cut. Martin turns out to be more vulnerable than is initially apparent. Andy is not as altruistic or naïve as he first seems. And Celia, whose early appearances make her seem like an ice queen, turns out to be the most fragile of all three. Watching the characters work through these relationships makes for rewarding viewing.

If this was a Hollywood production, Martin and Celia would bicker and fight a lot, hurt each other in various ways, then eventually get together and live happily ever after. In reality, things rarely work out that way, and Proof understands this. Those in search of a lightweight romantic comedy are going to be mightily irritated by the various twists and turns this movie takes. Not only doesn't the script follow the predictable formulas of the genre, but its ultimate destination isn't a fairy tale ending. Moorhouse is too smart to offer such a facile resolution.

The writer/director proves adept at mixing comedy and drama. Proof is never downbeat, but it contains sequences that evoke powerful emotional responses. Likewise, it isn't a farce, but there are several very funny scenes, including one in which Martin, the blind man, attempts to drive a car. The film defies easy classification, and, as a result, provides the perfect solution for anyone looking for a comedy that isn't foolish or a drama that isn't maudlin.

Proof benefits immeasurably from a trio of powerful performances. Hugo Weaving, who would go on to star in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, does an admirable job not only making us believe that Martin can't see, but letting us into his world by helping us to understand how seemingly minor incidents can be traumatic. Geneviève Picot portrays Celia as a source of endless fascination for viewers. In many ways, Celia, the vulnerable predator, is the most interesting character in the film: sensual but not necessarily beautiful, manipulative yet insecure, and cruel but desperately craving kindness. Russell Crowe, whose international career exploded shortly after Proof (his most recent high-profile role was as one of the leads in L.A. Confidential), plays Andy as a relatively straightforward and innocent young man who finds himself way over his head in the midst of Martin and Celia's twisted relationship. Yet his affection for both of them won't allow him to walk away.

The soundtrack of Proof is remarkable in the way it amplifies the blind man's perspective. We hear bracelets jingling, rain pattering on ceilings, cats purring, dogs panting, truck breaks squeaking, distant phones ringing, the hum of fluorescent lights, footsteps, wine being poured into glasses, and a china teacup rattling on a saucer. Moorhouse makes us aware of sounds in a way that most directors don't. It isn't necessary to the plot, but it's one of those touches that elevates the movie's impact. Proof would have been a fine feature without such details and subtleties. With them, it's a tour de force for a first-time director, and the kind of motion picture that deserves to be playing in VCRs, not sitting untouched on video store shelves.

Proof (Australia, 1991)

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Geneviève Picot, Russell Crowe
Screenplay: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cinematography: Martin McGrath
Music: Not Drowning Waving
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1