Sirens (Australia, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

On the surface, it's easy to assume that Sirens is a lighthearted erotic romp through the secluded wilds of Australia's Blue Mountains in the 1930s. Like in some modern-day garden of Eden, there are snakes, ripening fruit, and plenty of naked bodies. However, Sirens is not content merely to churn through the frothy waters of a sex comedy. By introducing the issue of religious repression, John Duigan's script ventures into an area it is unprepared to deal with.

A young Anglican clergyman, Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), and his somewhat naive wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) have recently arrived in Australia from England. At the request of the Bishop, the pair pause in their journey to Campion's new parish to visit artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill), whose paintings are threatening to create a scandal at the opening of an upcoming exhibition. They are to attempt to persuade Lindsay to withdraw something called "The Crucified Venus." Once on his estate, however, Tony and Estella find that life is far different from anything they have previously experienced. There are few taboos, and the presence of three young models (Elle MacPherson, Portia De Rossi, and Kate Fischer) begins to exert an influence on the visiting couple.

Filmed on the actual land once owned by Norman Lindsay (who died in 1969), Sirens does not attempt to be autobiographical, but instead draws upon the reputation of the artist to furnish background. Writer/director Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting) readily acknowledges that, with the exception of Lindsay and his family, all the characters are fictitious.

The potential is here for a delightful comedy/fantasy with an erotic edge, but certain elements of the movie work against that aim. There is an underlying current of mean-spiritedness that results in the most sympathetic character emerging from Sirens with the "short end of the stick." Also, many of the serious discussions involving the Church's repression of eroticism are too superficial to add anything noteworthy to the overall story. They appear to have been included to inject an intellectual aspect into an otherwise lightweight motion picture, and their presence is at times cumbersome.

The acting is top-notch. Hugh Grant and Sam Neill are excellent as friendly adversaries. Tara Fitzgerald, who played Nancy in Hear My Song, gives an effective rendering of a woman caught between two worlds. Elle MacPherson's performance is limited in scope, but the role thankfully doesn't require the model-turned-actress to overextend herself.

Atmosphere is another major element of Sirens that's handled well, aided by numerous shots of undulating snakes and lush vistas. And, as might be expected, nudity abounds. Nevertheless, by trying to do too much with this film, Duigan has limited its effectiveness. As a vehicle for examining the conflict between religion and artistic freedom, Sirens is shallow, and scenes concentrating on this issue dampen some of the lighthearted fun. Sometimes, it's better not to try for too much substance with such an earthy basic premise.

Sirens (Australia, 1992)

Director: John Duigan
Cast: Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Neill, Elle MacPherson, Portia De Rossi, Kate Fischer, Mark Gerber
Screenplay: John Duigan
Music: Rachel Portman
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 1993-03-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1