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MOVIE REVIEW

No Regular Joe

Could Stalin's love child with a Party girl ever live beyond his genes? 'Children' plots the possibilities.

May 01, 1997|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Imagine, just imagine, that Joseph Stalin had a love child. Could the boy settle down and become a regular Joe, or would his life prove that heredity is destiny? And what kind of a woman would have a mad romantic fling with Stalin in the first place?

"Children of the Revolution," the feature debut of Australian writer-director Peter Duncan, answers those questions and several others you might not have thought of. A gloss on the disillusion that came with the embracing of communist ideals that is part playful farce, part dark satire, this unclassifiable film, both comic and strange, always holds your attention even when it doesn't seem to know where it's going.

Providing "Revolution's" driving force is the whirlwind Judy Davis, who brings her trademark intensity and sense of humor to full boil here. Few actresses can get as comically riled up as Davis, and this fire-in-the-eyes part is made to order for her abilities.

Davis plays Joan Fraser, introduced as the Red terror of 1951 Sydney, a firebrand Communist who can't wait for the bloody proletarian revolution, the bloodier the better. "Overthrowing the government is not a hobby," she informs hangdog suitor Welch (Geoffrey Rush, much calmer than he was in "Shine"), and when he mentions the possibility of arrest she snaps, "Anyone who's anyone has been in prison."

Convinced that "what's going on in Russia has to be better than what's happening here," Joan's idea of a hobby is spending her spare evenings writing long, passionate letters to the world's top Communist, the man she reverentially calls "Comrade Uncle Joe."

Those letters do not go unnoticed. First they elicit a visit from a mysterious government agent known only as Nine (Sam Neill at his most unctuous). And they capture the fancy of Comrade Stalin's devoted male secretaries, eager to divert a boss who is grouchy from trying to give up smoking. Soon Stalin is dancing on air and inviting Joan Fraser to be his guest at Moscow's 1952 Communist Party congress.

Expertly played by F. Murray Abraham, Stalin is a comic opera villain who would be at home in producer Max Bialystock's "Springtime for Hitler." Toadied to by the trio of Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev he calls "the three stooges," Stalin is willing to do anything, even break into a chorus of "I get no kick from champagne," to impress our Joan.

Things don't necessarily go as planned behind the Kremlin's closed doors, however. Complications with Stalin as well as the surprising appearance of agent Nine lead to Joan arriving back home a bit dazed and pregnant enough to agree to a marriage of convenience to the compliant Welch.

Much of "Children of the Revolution" focuses on the life of Joan's son Joe (Richard Roxburgh), who spends so much time behind bars during his formative years due to arrests at demonstrations his mother has dragged him to that he inevitably falls in love with a handcuff-wielding member of the local constabulary (Rachel Griffiths).

That handcuff routine is typical of "Revolution's" subversive and unpredictable nature. Writer-director Duncan has a gift for twisty, outrageous plot details; while another film would have just given the adult Joe a mustache, he invents an unbelievably elaborate rationale for its appearance.

Constructed around a series of mock documentary interviews, "Children of the Revolution" has no intention of sticking to a single dramatic tone, and that can be a problem. Sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling, sometimes just off the wall, "Revolution" is much too various to settle for being simply a comedy. While ambition is usually a good thing in a filmmaker, Duncan's sometimes gets out of hand.

Still maybe Joseph Stalin put it best. "Never underestimate Australians, Yuri," he says to a loyal assistant. "They are not as silly as they sound."

* MPAA rating: R, for some strong sexuality and language. Times guidelines: a chaotic sexual encounter in the Kremlin.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Children of the Revolution'

Judy Davis: Joan

Sam Neill: Nine

F. Murray Abraham: Stalin

Richard Roxburgh: Joe

Rachel Griffiths: Anna

Geoffrey Rush: Welch

Released by Miramax Films. Director Peter Duncan. Producer Tristram Miall. Screenplay Peter Duncan. Cinematographer Martin McGrath. Editor Simon Martin. Costumes Terry Ryan. Music Nigel Westlake. Production design Roger Ford. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

* At selected theaters.

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