IN "CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION," REVOLUTIONARY KITSCH SHARES THE SCREEN WITH DEEP QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY.
On its surface, "Children of the Revolution" looks like a droll, small comedy about shifting political fashions, but at its heart lies a Chinese puzzle of identity and influence. What makes us who we are: blood or upbringing? Or can it be something much flimsier, no more than an idea we get into our heads about our destiny?
Judy Davis plays Joan, a fiery communist in 1950s Australia whose passion -- and complete indifference to romance -- seem to bewitch every man she meets. She springs to her feet in movie theaters to denounce newsreels and harangues her cozy little circle of comrades to take over Parliament when they'd much rather kibitz in the local pub ("What do you people want, a discreet revolution?"). At night, she shies away from the tender, awkward advances of fellow traveler Welch (Geoffrey Rush), preferring to write to her adored Josef Stalin, briefing him on the revolution's microscopic progress down under.
At the Kremlin, her fervent letters set some hardened hearts a-beating; Stalin's stoic assistants weep to read them, and even the dictator himself melts into a woozy bliss, once he puts down his movie magazines long enough to catch up on the Australian vanguard. The thrilled Joan receives an invitation to visit the Soviet Union, escorted by the mysterious Nine (a k a "Dave," played by Sam Neill), a sort of multiple agent charged by his various employers with both killing and protecting her ("Frankly, it's a bit of a tangle"). Of course, he falls for her instead.
Joan returns to Australia, pregnant, after one fateful, wine-soaked evening in Moscow, convinced that Stalin has fathered her child, although Nine himself is an equally plausible candidate. Telling no one, she marries Welch and they raise little Joe as their son -- a red diaper baby if there ever was one. Although Joe has duly learned his lessons, and can parrot large chunks of Marxist propaganda on command, he's got one boyish mania that troubles his mum: He likes going to jail, and the indulgent local constables are forever humoring him by fondly clapping him in handcuffs. Harmless enough, but when Joe (Richard Roxburgh) becomes a strapping hippie youth and meets a comely policewoman, Anna (Rachel Griffiths), decked out in leather jacket and black patent leather boots, his renewed interest in civil disobedience is motivated by something more personal than political.
"Children of the Revolution" at first seems to meander benignly through the 40-some years it covers -- from its early, gentle, "Ninotchka"-style scenes of stiff Soviet officials singing "I Get No Kick From Champagne" through Joe's puppyish attempts to capture Anna's attention by spraying anti-war slogans on walls. Then, with Joe's imprisonment for draft-dodging, the story becomes a nifty mechanism, a trap that snaps shut with surprising precision, the humor turning dark and edgy. Joan accidentally lets her secret slip out and Joe becomes obsessed with his paternity and its meaning.
After he saves a guard during a prison fire, Joe's passion for the penal system makes him a hero and leader of the guards' union, and eventually he's invited to run an amalgamation called the Super Law Enforcement Union. "Just think what you could do if you had the entire country's police force behind you," a supporter wheedles. Sporting a suspiciously familiar mustache (to cover scars acquired during the fire), this powerful new Joe grows increasingly paranoid and, well, dictatorial. Soon, he's imagining conversations with Papa Joe, in which he asks, "What makes someone a monster? It can't be just poverty and child abuse, can it?" The phantom Stalin shrugs.
This is Peter Duncan's first feature, and the former lawyer has created a movie too low-key in its cleverness, and too resolutely unsentimental, to ever be an art house hit. Still, "Children of the Revolution" offers many pleasures, not the least of which is Davis' uncompromisingly prickly performance as the glowering, disheveled Joan. "I can't relax," she complains -- and one of the movie's subtlest, saddest jokes is that Joan can't access the fizzy emotions she arouses in so many men. Rush's lovely turn as the warm, reliable Welch demonstrates that the actor can deliver in roles less showy (and gimmicky) than the one that earned him an Oscar in "Shine."
"Children of the Revolution" poses its big questions so deftly that they only float to the surface after the movie comes to its witty end. Is that Stalin's blood showing in the scary adult Joe? How peculiar, then, that it only blossoms after Joan confesses her secret; when Joe thought he was Welch's son, he was a sweet-tempered lad content to chuckle at the telly and yearn for Anna. On the other hand, perhaps his very mutability is a sign that his real father is the slippery Nine. As for Joe's affinity for jail cells and speechmaking, well, it's Joan who declares that "anyone who's anyone in revolutionary politics has gone to prison," so maybe he's really just his mother's son, after all. In that case, perhaps Joe's despotic inclinations are the true legacy of Joan's ideological obsessions, however much she hates to think of her son as an uberpoliceman.
To echo Nine: Frankly, it's a bit of a tangle. The movie's breezy exterior, its happy pandering to the post-Cold War mind-set that experiences Soviet trappings as goofy kitsch, doesn't detract from its stealthy intelligence about the muddled intersection of psychology and politics. "Children of the Revolution" won't leave its audiences weak with laughter, but it should have the most perceptive among them arguing in the aisles.