From disaffected youth to self-sabotaging adults: Christos Tsiolkas’s characters on screen

'Little Tornadoes' is the latest stellar production involving the Australian author, whose canon is replete with nihilists and nogoodniks. We run down some of the best Tsiolkas productions

The small town-set period drama Little Tornadoes is unlike most films and TV shows attached to Christos Tsiolkas – in that it was co-written by the acclaimed Australian author rather than adapted from one of his books. Penned by Tsiolkas and director Aaron Wilson, this finely made and engrossing film, out in Australian cinemas today, presents a vivid character study of a morose metalworker named Leo (Mark Leonard Winter) who struggles to take care of his two young children after his wife abruptly leaves him.

In fact he struggles full stop, Winter’s painfully glum performance illustrating a down-in-the-mouth man who has deep trouble expressing himself and whose mind drifts to terrible places. The more time we spend with his PTSD-afflicted father (Robert Menzies), who served in WWII and is also taciturn and intensely melancholic, the more it becomes clear these traits are symbolic of men in general – particularly Australians living in rural and remote communities, where there are substantially higher rates of suicide, anxiety and depression.

Little Tornadoes is the latest example of Tsiolkas’ work translating into a production with engaging, fully dimensional characters presented before thematic backgrounds exploring significant social issues. Other themes in films and shows based on his work include anxiety around child rearing (The Slap, adapted into an Australian TV show – we don’t talk about the American remake), Australia’s obsession with sports (the TV series Barracuda), intergenerational guilt and trauma (the feature film Dead Europe) and disillusioned youth (the features Head On and Blessed).

Little Tornadoes and its fascinating, tormented protagonist – and the fact that Tsiolkas’s work has been brought to the screen so well, so many times, given the quality of the source material provides no guarantee of a decent motion picture – got me wondering: what are the standout Tsiolkas productions (both those he worked on and those others adapted) and what kind of people are they about?

Mark Leonard Winter in Little Tornadoes
Mark Leonard Winter in ‘Little Tornadoes’. Credit: Press

The two stand-outs – both terrific films – are Head On and Dead Europe: the former a hot-blooded, scuzzy-looking, strikingly stylistic portrait of disenfranchised youth directed by Ana Kokkinos (based on Tsiolkas’ 1995 novel Loaded), and the latter an under-appreciated drama from Tony Krawitz that borrows from the language of thrillers to ratchet up an atmosphere combining realism with increasingly nightmarish psychology.

Screen narratives based on Tsiolkas’ books, and those co-written by him, often revolve around deeply conflicted and/or self-sabotaging characters grappling with, among other things, familial conflict. The most debaucherous of the bunch is Head On’s Ari (Alex Dimitriades): an angry, promiscuous, drug-taking, reckless gay man who gets off on yelling random abuse at passersby and has sex with strangers in laneways. There’s no cozy arc offering him personal redemption or the learning of life lessons. Played with gut-busting bravado by Alex Dimitriades, Ari concludes the film with a bitterly nihilistic spray, proclaiming via voice-over that: “I’m a whore, a dog and a cunt… I’m not going to change a thing, nobody’s going to remember me when I’m dead.” Yep: he’s a glass is half empty kind of guy.

Tsiolkas’s characters are engaging, nuanced, compelling personalities who reflect various aspects of the Australian psyche

The protagonist of Dead Europe, Ewen Leslie’s Isaac, is also a partaker in narcotics and not averse to having sex in public places. Having traveled to Athens to scatter his father’s ashes, Isaac hooks up with a man in a park before encountering a young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is apparently an undocumented refugee and pleads for his help. The boy’s face haunts him for the rest of the film, symbolising a dark secret from his father’s past. Isaac has an awful mother (“hell is for Jews and Muslims,” she says) and a junkie brother who plays an important role in a climactic denouement in which Krawitz blurs the line between events actually happening in this world and visions that may belong only in the protagonist’s head.

There are plenty of misbehaving youth in Blessed, who wander the streets of Melbourne committing crimes and rebelling against their parents. The film (also directed by Kokkinos) has an intentionally scratchy, almost vérité aesthetic, and an interesting narrative structure divided into two chapters: the first focusing on disaffected kids and the second their mothers. Both begin with close-ups of the characters sleeping: a quiet start to a drama full of bad behaviour and conflict.

Australian author Christos Tsiolkas
Christos Tsiolkas photographed in 2014. Credit: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Conflict in and between families is in The Slap sparked by one key event – the slapping of a misbehaving child at a barbeque, by a man (Alex Dimitriades again) who is not his father – that draws out tensions, animosities and varying moral interpretations of the same incident. Separated into episodes told from the perspective of different characters, the first follows Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia) who is also a self-sabotaging bloke – less in his (relatively modest) drinking and drug-taking than in his flirtations with 17-year-old Connie (Sophie Lowe). If he pursues this relationship we, and he, understand it can’t possibly end well.

Meanwhile the protagonist in Barracuda, aspiring Olympian swimmer Danny Kelly (Elias Anton), is hard-working and devoted. Danny, who is also gay, comes from a working-class family but mingles with bluebloods when he receives a scholarship from a prestigious private school, where he joins the swimming team. From the start the production is slickly staged, and the drama engaging, but it becomes something truly special as it draws to a close – shirking the expected hero narrative to comment on a cruel sporting conveyor belt that rolls out many more losers than winners.

Danny is a flawed protagonist, at times infuriatingly so, but he’s an upstanding member of society compared to the above nogoodniks. These people aren’t exactly shining examples of virtue and success – but they are all engaging, nuanced, compelling personalities who reflect various aspects of the Australian psyche, often in contrast to the white, straight, middle-class, city-dwelling male we are so used to seeing on screens. Leo from Little Tornadoes is the latest addition to an already fascinating collection of Christos Tsiolkas creations and recreations; fingers crossed there will be many more.

Little Tornadoes is out in Australian cinemas today

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