Heatwave is not a film noir. It seems like it ought to be one, but it’s not. It’s got all the pieces to be a film noir, but the way director Noyce assembles them doesn’t result in noir. There are occasionally these heavily stylized slow motion sequences. Sometimes Noyce and editor John Scott emphasize relief, sometimes violence, sometimes heat. The film’s narrative distance isn’t noir enough. It’s a really cool narrative distance, but it’s not at all noir. It’s a breakneck paced thriller, only with two protagonists who don’t realize they’re in a thriller. They think they’re in entirely different stories.
Second-billed Richard Moir (who’s actually the lead) is an architect whose big new project is running into some snags. The project is a futuristic condo, made mostly of glass (Noyce never gives the model a close-up so nothing’s too specific), with trees inside and natural lighting and so on. To get the project built, the developers are going to kick out the working class residents and tear down their homes. The project is called “Eden”; Heatwave is perfectly matter-of-fact with quite a few things. It barely runs ninety minutes and has a bunch of characters, lots of story; Noyce and co-writer Marc Rosenberg never waste time, they’re pragmatic to the point of obvious but it works because Moir’s astoundingly naive. So long as he doesn’t have to compromise his designs, Moir doesn’t really care about anything. Wife Anna Maria Monticelli, who also works with him in some unexplained capacity, is a social climber. Moir’s from a working class background, Monticelli’s a blue blood. She wants to show the world her man’s made good. He’s indifferent but happy to play along; he’s getting recognized for his amazing architectural designs, everything else is gravy. But not even gravy worth caring about too much.
Then there’s top-billed Judy Davis. She’s a blue blood who went to college, got radicalized, now tries to help the working class with their plight. She works for independent, crusading journalist Carole Skinner. Skinner’s not a blue blood and she lends Davis some cred. There’s a non-subplot about Skinner and Moir being good friends before Moir went to the U.S. to study architecture and get better indoctrinated with capitalism. When he got back they weren’t friends any more. Or so the movie says. Moir’s got zero reaction to Skinner’s eventual mysterious disappearance. Notice I just gave Davis’s paragraph away? Gave it to Moir? Because the movie does the same thing, over and over.
It’s fine, it works out. But Moir’s nowhere near as interesting as Davis. At least in terms of performance. Moir’s just aloof and naive. Kind of pseudo-preppy. He’s constantly tagging along with the real alpha males, developer Chris Haywood and lawyer John Gregg. Davis gets to do a lot more. Even when Moir gets interested in Skinner’s disappearance, it’s only because he’s not cool with how scummy Haywood and Gregg are willing to go evicting residents. And because not-independent newspaper reporter and fun old guy John Meillon wants Moir to get involved.
Moir does stay involved for his own reasons… primarily Davis. He’s got the hots for Davis because she says and thinks all the things he didn’t know he kind of wanted to say or think. As for Davis… her being interested too is one of the film’s plotting efficiencies. Maybe one Noyce should’ve taken more time with, but Davis is always getting shafted on story time.
She gets a decent amount of action, but she also ends up with a bunch of the exposition. Noyce has this great device for exposition—characters sitting, listening to the radio. Because it’s too hot to do much besides sit and listen to the radio. Heatwave takes place during a winter heatwave. The film starts before Christmas, ends on New Year’s. Everyone is miserably hot, visibly miserably hot, no one ever complains, they just endure it as best they can. It’s a great built-in constant, agitating the plot whenever needed.
Heatwave’s efficient to a fault.
Excellent performance from Davis, really good one from Moir. Haywood’s good, Gregg’s good. Meillon’s decent. He’s functional for the script more than anything else. Meillon’s able to imply depth; the script doesn’t want it from him. It would be really nice if Gillian Jones were able to imply depth. She’s got a small but important role and… it’s not a good performance. Might not be Jones’s fault, given her character and the character’s writing. But still. That aspect of the film being better might have brought it up to another level.
Then again Jones is one of the noir pieces and Heatwave isn’t a noir.
Great photography Vincent Monton. Good music from Cameron Allan. Ross Major’s production design is another plus. Noyce’s direction is extravagant but never self-indulgent.
Heatwave is a rather good stiflingly hot Christmas, not noir but noir-y, stylish conspiracy thriller.
Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Noyce and Marc Rosenberg, based on a story by Mark Stiles and Tim Gooding; director of photography, Vincent Monton; edited by John Scott; music by Cameron Allan; production designer, Ross Major; produced by Hilary Linstead; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.
Starring Judy Davis (Kate Dean), Richard Moir (Stephen West), Chris Haywood (Peter Houseman), Bill Hunter (Robert Duncan), John Gregg (Philip Lawson), Anna Maria Monticelli (Victoria West), John Meillon (Freddie Dwyer), Dennis Miller (Mick Davies), Carole Skinner (Mary Ford), Gillian Jones (Barbie Lee Taylor), Frank Gallacher (Dick Molnar), Tui Bow (Annie), and Don Crosby (Jim Taylor).