A version of this review appeared in The Age, April 30, 2011.
A Brahms concerto is in progress at the Sydney Opera House; a teenage girl stands in the midst of her school orchestra, clutching her violin. She blinks rapidly, runs her fingertips over the strings, gazes intently upward. When the cue arrives for her solo, she lifts her bow and shuts her eyes, giving every ounce of attention to the music. Time to seize the day.
Passion, suspense, the struggle for artistic achievement: it's all here in the introductory sequence of Mrs Carey's Concert, which transcends its “inspirational” format to rank as the best Australian film so far this year.
Though the fact isn't noted as often as it should be, observational documentary is one of the few areas where Australian filmmakers regularly excel. Mrs Carey's Concert marks a welcome comeback for Bob Connelly, who collaborated with the late Robin Anderson on a series of films covering everything from tribal warfare in Papua New Guinea to the inner workings of the New South Wales Labor Party.
The subject-matter of Mrs Carey's Concert, which Connelly co-directed with Sophie Raymond, at first looks relatively mundane. Mrs Carey is the long-serving Head of Music at a private girls' school in Western Sydney: a middle-aged woman with a kind, worn face and a sometimes abrasive manner. A dedicated teacher, she pushes her students to be extraordinary; once every two years she arranges for them to give a concert at the Opera House, with an ambitious program drawn from the classical repertoire.
Her current budding star is Emily Sun – a gifted violinist who shows worrying rebellious tendencies after hours, at least according to evidence gathered from the Internet. As a scholarship student Emily has little leeway to misbehave, but her mentor refuses to give up hope: “No-one who can do what she can do is a bad person.” There's less certainty of redemption for Emily's opposite number, the poised, insolent Iris Shi, who makes no pretence of regarding choir rehearsals as anything but a chore.
Like the judges on a TV talent quest – or the ballet choreographer in Black Swan – Mrs Carey and her colleagues insist that genuine artistic expression must come from the heart. There's an incongruous side to this demand, as most of the students are well aware. “Make me blush with the passion,” orders the Head of Strings, guiding her charges through a Vaughan Williams fantasia; in response, a young girl heaves her chest and rolls her eyes, guying the prescribed intensity of emotion.
Despite her vague, giggly responses in class, Emily is nobody's fool, and has her own ideas about the relationship between music and feeling. “When you talk about it there's no meaning behind it any more, and then it's just words.” Understandably, she has reservations about the latest opus of the school's earnest composer-in-residence – a salute to the Voyager space program in which a pair of violins represent “star-crossed” lovers.
Though the tone is light and often comic, the issues raised here lie close to home for many types of artists. Like Mrs Carey, Connelly and Raymond express themselves by proxy, relying on collaborators who are willing to run the risk of self-exposure.
To some degree their ethics have to be taken on good faith; whenever they cut to a reaction shot, there's no way to be sure how much editing trickery is involved. Still, they've clearly taken pains to avoid intruding too far into the lives of their subjects, rarely pursuing them outside the school; the one scene that goes against this principle is arguably the film's only structural misstep.
While Iris keeps her distance from the ideals of her teachers, she's more than willing to play along with the filmmakers' need for an antagonist. Her head-to-head clashes with authority make for superbly uncomfortable drama, as an increasingly distraught Mrs Carey struggles to appeal to the better nature of a pupil who has no scruples about twisting the knife.
“Is what we do real?” Mrs Carey asks herself after an especially fraught encounter – a question that might be pondered by any teacher, artist, or thinking human being. In fact there's little doubt that the concert will be a triumph: the only mystery is how many of the students will gain as much satisfaction as Mrs Carey herself. Even as the school unites for a rousing chorus of Verdi's “Triumphal March,” it's hard to forget Iris' cool, mocking smile, a challenge to every positive message the film conveys about the transformative power of learning.