The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - SMASH PALACE (1981) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - SMASH PALACE (1981)

smash palace review
A father becomes increasingly unstable as his marriage dismantles.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Roger Donaldson

Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Anna Maria Monticelli, Greer Robson-Kirk, Keith Aberdein

smash palace arrow blu-ray

On the release of Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople a couple of years ago, many observers noted similarities to another piece of Kiwi cinema - Roger Donaldson's 1981 domestic drama Smash Palace. Both movies feature adult men fleeing into the New Zealand bush with young children, and both climax in the same location - Horopito Motors, a car-wrecking yard situated on New Zealand's North island.

In Donaldson's film, the yard doubles for 'Smash Palace', a wrecking yard run by former race driver Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence), who lives on the site with his French wife Jacqui (Anna Jemison) and young daughter Georgie (Greer Robson). Al and Jacqui met while the former was recovering in a French hospital from a car wreck during one of his races, and Al brought his new wife back to his small town home, taking over the wrecking business when his father passed away.

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Now Al and Jacqui's marriage is in a state reflected by the dozens of car wrecks that surround their home. Al has been offered money to sell the yard, but stubbornly refuses, much to the annoyance of Jacqui, who feels she is stagnating in her rural surrounds. Planning to get back in the racing game, Al devotes more time to repairing his coveted race car than to indulging his wife, who begins flirting with Al's friend and local cop Ray (Keith Aberdein).

One day Al comes home to find Ray in his house alone with Jacqui, and an argument breaks out that leads Jacqui to leave with Georgie. Al attempts to spend time with his daughter, but the more uncooperative his estranged wife becomes, the more unstable and violent Ray grows.

smash palace

Initially refused funding by the New Zealand film commission - despite his previous film, 1977's Sleeping Dogs, having been responsible for launching the body - Donaldson was eventually granted funds under one strict condition: the film had to be completed in time to screen at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. This gave Donaldson a mere four months to complete his film, and Smash Palace reflects this sense of urgency. Many scenes are shot with handheld cameras, creating a voyeuristic sense that the viewer is standing awkwardly by during Ray and Jacqui's many spousal smackdowns, and adding to the improv feel of the performances.

Once hailed by no less than Jack Nicholson as the most exciting actor working at the time, Lawrence is excellent here, possessing a hedgehog like ability to go from warm and tender in his sweet interactions with his daughter to menacing and abrasive in his confrontations with his wife. How great might he have been in Nicholson's role in The Shining?

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Lawrence's range is key to the film's refusal to take a stand on whether we should despise or sympathise with Al. It's impossible to condone his extreme behaviour towards Jacqui, but at the same time it's clear he genuinely loves his daughter, who equally adores her father. Al may be his own worst enemy, but he's far from his only enemy, as Jacqui goes so far as to take out a non-molestation order against him - despite no evidence that he ever touched his child in anything but a fatherly way - and a local cop has it in for him, taking violent revenge in the film's latter stages.

With its somewhat hellish portrayal of smalltown New Zealand, you can perhaps understand why a government body might be reluctant to fund it, but it also serves as a subtle showcase for that country's stunning natural landscape. A volcano looms over the town where the drama plays out, standing in the background of one of the more dramatic scenes as though silently passing judgement. Helicopter shots dwarf the relatively recent intrusion of humanity in this place of ancient natural beauty, making the man-made drama of the film seem inconsequential. But for those involved, it's a life and death situation, and as Jacqui becomes more uncooperative and Al grows increasingly disturbed, we begin to worry whether life and death might ultimately be on the line in this human tragedy.

Feature commentary by Donaldson and stunt driver Steve Millen; an hour long 'making of' documentary; trailer; and a collector's booklet (first pressing only) featuring writing by Pauline Kael and Ian Barr.

Smash Palace is on blu-ray May 28th from Arrow Academy.