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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

I AM YOU (2009) ~ ‘Heart-breaking, Haunting, Horrendous’

Director: Simone North
Cast: Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto, Ruth Bradley, Sam Neill

(This review may contain plot spoilers - watch before reading!)

I Am You (also known as ‘In Her Skin’) is based on the real-life brutal murder of a 15-year old girl in Australia. The film doesn’t cover up the identity of the killer, so unless you are a real stickler for spoilers, you may wish to look away now. In fact, throughout the film, there are moments when you may just wish to look away anyway.

The young girl, the athletic and pretty Rachel Barber, was murdered by her former nanny and family neighbour; the seemingly friendly, but far less pretty – and in the film, clearly struck by a flint spark of full-blown jealousy - Caroline Reed Robertson (‘Caroline Reid’ in the film). Rachel was murdered at Prahran in the State of Victoria. Having told friends that she was about to make a lot of money later that day, she said goodbye to her father at the tram stop in the morning, before making her way to dance school in Richmond. When her father arrived at the tram stop later that evening; Rachel wasn’t there to greet him – he waited but she didn’t turn up. He would never see his daughter alive again.

Like last year’s equally stunning but probably even more shocking, Snowtown (surely one of the best movies of 2011), I Am You is an Australian-made movie based on a real life suburban killing that shocked both local neighbourhood and entire country. The killers in Snowtown killed many, while the single killer we witness in I Am You committed the one terrible crime, and in a more well-to-do suburban setting than those dead-end roads of Snowtown.

Caroline Reed Robertson is eligible for parole in 2013, but for those convicted in Snowtown – there is no chance of ever being released, their appeals now exhausted.

Snowtown had to tread carefully around upsetting documents that were not released to the general public about the crimes of killer John Bunting and friends. The filmmakers were given unprecedented access to these records to make their movie. The ride for I Am You was less smooth, and the film is still to earn a proper release in its home country due, it’s claimed by both director and Rachel Barber’s family, to a contractual dispute with the film’s distributor regarding screen time given to the murderer against that given to her victim.

When the film was completed and submitted for release, director Simone North and Rachel’s family (who allowed the book written by Rachel’s mother to be used as basis for North’s script on condition their daughter’s side of the story was focused on - not that of her killer) claimed the distributor re-edited the movie in secret (these, of course, are the reported claims and accusations, to which I have no idea who is right and nor have they yet been proven - the legal process still dragging on at time of writing) and the new version of the film shifted to focus more on the killer’s side of the story, perhaps because that side was the more commercial side of the coin to be flipped on.

The title of the movie was also changed from the director’s preferred choice of 'I Am You' to 'In Her Skin' (a title even further away from the film’s rather brilliant original working title of ‘How to Change in 9 Weeks’). The title I Am You has been kept on for a German DVD release and also for the UK film channel screening, but not for the US disc that sticks with the distributor’s stamp of In Her Skin.

Clearly the disputes around the film have harmed the deserved success of the movie around the world, and harmed our own relationship with the movie too. Are we now watching a cut the director can approve of, or one the distributor created and tarnished the film with? According to Rachel’s family and the film’s director; the distributor interference was a clear breach of contract to the family’s wishes that the film portray events from Rachel and her family’s side of the story. So should our appraisal of the film be negative, if there’s negativity from both director and the family of Rachel Barber, towards this particular cut of the movie? Whatever the damage done to the film’s reputation itself, the fuss has certainly resulted in a peculiarly limited worldwide release of a film that’s as good as a missing person itself back in its native Australia - the country where it will probably appeal the most, and certainly provoke the most reaction in.

There are petitions online from the family and friends of Rachel Barber as well as director Simone North to have the film released in its proper cut in its home country. From the petition link, there are some quotes from filmmakers and Rachel’s family that it’s worth sharing as further insight into the kind of releasing limbo the film currently finds itself trapped in:

Elizabeth Barber (Rachel’s Mother) backing up her family’s involvement in the film’s production: “We have been completely involved in the making (of the movie) and support its theatrical release in Australian cinemas...the film portrays the horror that resulted from a failure to react to Caroline's instability (one that may have saved Rachel). It gives Rachel a voice.”

Heather Barber (Rachel’s Sister), more understandably scathing in her words, hoping that such a crime will never be allowed to happen again: “My family wants others to hear Rachel's story, and Rachel would want this, too…I've no sympathy for Caroline - there is no excuse for murder. I've less sympathy for her parents who should have listened to Caroline's pleas for help. This film needs to be on the big screen so Rachel and Caroline's story never happens again.”

Simone North (Writer and Director) on how the film grew in development: “When I undertook the making of this film…I expected it to be a small, independent production. I wrote the film and realized this was not going to be the reality. Amazing Australian actors such as Guy Pearce, Sam Neill and Miranda Otto showed great interest in the project, and in turn the film exploded into a very large scale production”.

It seems creative control was taken away from the filmmakers, a constant threat to many working in the industry when bigger studios take the reins and stifle independence, but in this case it seems a guarantee to Rachel’s family regarding the film's content had been made, making the decision to alter the context of the narrative (if the claims are valid) far more serious: “The film’s distributors re-cut the film without my knowing” Simone North writes as part of her statement, “despite (this action) being a breach of our contract, turning the situation into a legal nightmare. The nightmare is on-going even now. The distributors believed Caroline was the more interesting and compelling of the two girls and re-cut the film in this mindset. But this was not what I was intending my film to be. I knew the story inside and out, and I knew that this film was for Rachel. To give her back the voice Caroline had robbed from her”.

It’s hard to review a film with such troubled background clear in the mind, but – even if the cut is not the one that family and filmmakers wish us to see, I do think the memory of Rachel Barber comes across in a very positive way still, and reflects her life and the love her family have for her - as well as their frustration with authority. I think the film is fairly evenly balanced out; with the plight of Rachel’s family and the search for their missing daughter, probably still being the still beating heart of the story.

There are suggestions that Caroline had even more disturbing childhood traumas, in her family life, to cope with than just the tortured existence we are shown here - but we don’t delve any deeper in the movie. She is a trusted family friend of Rachel and her family with a scrambled sense of jealousy and obsession towards a young girl she watches across the road - Caroline is a girl with a distant, never-there father; sinking into overwhelming despair and eventual hatred, and that’s all we need here. When the police in the movie tell Rachel’s dad (Guy Pearce unflinchingly refusing to believe the worst) that his missing daughter was last seen with Caroline, he smiles, with a smile that says, ‘well, that’s good isn’t it?’, and when he learns who it was that actually killed their daughter, there’s a less certain, half-smile (but still a smile), and disbelief – then whispering; “Caroline?”

The body of Rachel Barber was found buried in a shallow grave at property owned by Caroline Reed Robertson’s father. Whether that was a cry for help from Caroline to her father - a symbolic gesture of some kind, or just the safest quietest place she can think of to hide her crime, isn’t known. I feel for Caroline’s bullied, lonely, empty life, but her terrible crime sadly cancels a lot of – if not all - that sympathy out, and I feel sad most of all for the family of Rachel Barber, who lost a child for a really stupid, childish reason; the thought that a woman they all knew simply decided their child was too good, too pretty, maybe too perfect for this world – and that she herself wasn’t. Caroline Reed Robertson was wrong on both those counts.

Guy Pearce’s portrayal of the strong, caring father, Mr Barber, by contrast to that of Sam Neill’s Mr Reed, couldn’t be more different. This is a father who dotes on his daughter and is simply waiting to collect her, like usual, on the day when she never turns up, then more waiting around follows, for days and weeks - this time to hear news, finally only getting the bad sort; the news he dreads most. Pearce marbles the role with truly impassioned and heartfelt grief and love – almost, at times, too much to bear. This actor, from such humble beginnings in Australian soap opera, has towered up into one of the best actors of his generation; and Pearce gives a remarkably restrained performance here - one straining at the leash for people to do something, or just to be able to do something himself; to bring his daughter back home.

And then the worst moment to watch of all, towards the end of the movie - Rachel’s dad stands alone; staring away into the distance, thinking perhaps of the daughter he now misses every day, hour, second. His youngest daughter comes up to him - they hug, and she tells her dad that she can’t bear her life anymore; that it’s her fault her sister is dead; because it’s her fault they needed a babysitter (in the court documents from the trial we are told that the families of Rachel and Caroline became close; ‘in particular, the deceased became acquainted with the prisoner’s younger sister, Chrissie, and the deceased’s younger sister, Ashleigh-Rose, became friendly with the prisoner’s sister, Kathy’ – Caroline was part of that network of trust). The young girl’s father hugs her harder than ever, tells the child over and over that it’s not her fault at all; that it’s just not true. I wish the same could be said about this movie – that it’s not true; that it’s just not.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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