Harlequin (1980)
Robert Winter on January 22, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 91 minutes
The Movie
Director: Simon Wincer
Starring: Robert Powell, David Hemmings, Carmen Duncan, Broderick Crawford, Gus Mercurio, Klaus Schultz, Jeremy Sims
Screenplay: Everett De Roche
fascinating, evil or good?
Country: Australia
AKA: Dark Forces; Minister's Magician
When enigmatic magician/faith healer Gregory Wolfe cures high-profile Senator Nick Rast's son of leukemia, the Senator's estranged and sexually frustrated wife invites Wolfe to stay with them.

As Wolfe becomes increasingly "involved" in the Senator's personal and business affairs, Rast's political advisers are suspiciously threatened by the influence the healer appears to have over the family. The tension and mystique is further compounded by the fact that the Governor has vanished, presumed drowned, under dubious circumstances and Rast is being groomed to become the next head of state.

Grounding its plot in the unsolved events surrounding the disappearance of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967, Harlequin is a bold blend of phantasmagoria and political intrigue. Seasoning the mystery is the Rasputin-rich narrative that cleverly holds it all together. Like the "Mad Monk", Wolfe's intense charismatic presence and his use of persuasive rhetoric and sleight-of-hand illusion to seduce the family into blind trust, are characteristic of how Rasputin charmed his way into lives of Tsar Nicholas II's household during the dying days of Russia's Romanov Dynasty in the latter half of the 1800s. Moreover, the Rasputin reference is more than just a passing one – Senator Rast's last name is an anagram of Tsar (Nicholas), wife Sandra Rast (Tsarina Alexandra) and Gregory Wolfe (Grigori Rasputin). And even the Tsar Nicholas' son, like Senator Rast's, suffered from a blood disorder.

While the storytelling is engrossing the dated 70s fashion can at times be a distraction. When Wolfe makes an entrance to a party at the Senator's home dressed in what can only be described as a rejected costume from David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes video, his countenance is comical rather than captivating.

Another area of concern is the cheaply created special effects. For example, a sequence involving flying plates which suddenly swerve before hitting their target look like they were attached to a string that was yanked at last moment before impact. (In fact, this was the case according to the Director in the audio commentary).

Nevertheless, Harlequin has a timeless, beautifully photographed facade that not only enhances the drama but endows the film with a distinct Australian flavour. The Director and Cinematographer carefully spotlight the gorgeous Perth locations and interiors (the house used was Alan Bond's mansion by the Swan River) by making the most out of the panoramic format available to them at the time. The camera lens does, however, has its technological limitations as a number of shots inside the house especially, render the background out of focus while the foreground is crisp and clear.

Although the film was nominated for a number of AFI Awards, Aussie audiences didn't take to the film's unusual mix of political thriller and the supernatural at the time of its release. Consequently, it only returned around half of its estimated budget of $850,000 at the box office. However, it found financial success and appreciation in Europe, where it won Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay Awards at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival in 1980.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. There is a fair amount of dirt and debris on the print during the opening sequence, but this soon clears.

Colours are a little washed-out or can appear somewhat oversaturated at times, while a thin veneer of lo-fi grain creeps in now again. But overall this is a nice looking transfer for a 27-year-old relatively obscure film.
The two-channel stereo mix does the job. The plaintive score and soundtrack by Brian May, and tacky special effects noises emanate through the front channels with reasonable fullness.

Dialogue can be difficult to discern during moments of high drama and unfortunately there's no English subtitle option to come to the rescue.
Extra Features
The audio commentary by Director Simon Wincer and Producer Antony Ginnane is a highly informative and fascinating listen. They offer interesting insights into the making of Harlequin and talk candidly about the nature of the Australian film industry during the late 70s.

There is also the original theatrical trailer and trailers for other Umbrella releases – The Survivor, Thirst, Road Games and the brilliantly creepy Long Weekend.

A "behind the scenes photo gallery" is listed on the back of the DVD case, but unless it is a well-hidden Easter Egg, I couldn't find it.
The Verdict
Harlequin is a curious film. Bursting with imagination, relevance and insight, it's only hampered by the idiosyncratic look and feel of the "decade that taste forgot."
Movie Score
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