Ten Empty is a film which Australian actors Brendan Cowell and Anthony Hayes had been developing for over several years.
It stars long time Australian TV and theatre actor Daniel Frederiksen (in his lead film debut) as Elliot, a big city player who returns to his childhood home in Adelaide, 10 years after running off to Sydney to fulfill the wishes of his father Ross (Geoff Morrell) and his step-mum -formerly Aunt- Diana (Lucy Bell), and become the Godfather of their new baby, his half-brother.
Almost immediately awkwardness driven by bitterness sets in when he returns. Diana – plagued by Catholic guilt for marrying his sister’s husband– tries to accommodate Elliot with the best of intensions. However Elliot does not want her generosity, nor does he care much of his half-brother, who he casts aside like a bad disease when asked to take care of him.
The fireworks really go off when Elliot comes face to face with his father. A culture clash of sorts ensues between the blue-collar dad and the big city son. The most trivial of gestures leads to colossal arguments, such as when Ross offers his son home brewed beer, only to be defiantly turned down because he only drinks red wine.
A subsequent dinner scene turns into an even bigger argument, and a backyard BBQ highlights the widening gap between old school sensibilities and new school sensitivities.
At first it feels like a cynical look at Australian suburbia that ventures dangerously close to becoming satire. But soon it becomes apparent what is happening. This is not a family story: This is an exorcism. A purging of guilt and remorse for past atrocities that has crippled the spirit of one family.
On top of it all hangs the black cloud of mental illness, which took away the mind and life of Elliot’s mother (who suffered from bipolar syndrome). Now it is Elliot’s brother Brett (played by burgeoning actor Tom Budge) who has succumbed to a (unspecified) mental illness. In turn he has willingly gone mute, will not leave his room, and has become dangerous and suicidal.
The family is faced with limited options as to what to do with him, crumbling under the prospect of countless pills on top of a mountain of medical bills for private care. It is a damning commentary on the Australian Governments attitude towards mental illness, and is the films strength.
As can be imagined, Ten Empty is a distressing and sad film to watch. Co-writer/director Anthony Hayes sets up tense altercations for his actors, and captures the carnage in several scenes that are held in a single frame, not flinching from the conflict before him.
With such heavy material (written by Hayes and Brendan Cowell), powerful performances were needed and are given by its cast. Supporting roles by the amazing Jack Thompson and Cowell lend much needed laughs to counter its heavy moments.
Yet for all of its promise, it is a choppy conclusion that stops the film from becoming that something special. This is due to a major flaw in the screenplay which will prompt the viewer to question: Why is a man who is clearly mentally disturbed (with suicidal tendencies) left alone without adequate supervision?
The answer, of course, is to create a shock drama moment that will have the audience reeling. The problem is that moment had come and gone in the middle of the film, and the fact that the films characters did not take precautions to make sure it would not happen again reeks of poor story telling.
It is drama for drama’s sake, feels predictable, and undercuts the emotional value expertly built before hand.
So while Ten Empty dos contain a lot of good points, it fails to capitalize on the promise felt in its first hour.