Kate Nelligan seems to be everywhere, all at once, in all sorts of guises. In the fall, she strutted onto movie screens with her energetic portrayal , of Cora, a brassy, gum-chewing waitress in the romance Frankie and Johnny. In The Prince of Tides, opening later this month, she portrays a repressed grandmother whose children are finally coming to terms with their family’s darkest secrets. On the small screen, meanwhile, the handsome, auburn-haired actress from London,
Ont., has the lead role in a four-hour CBC mini-series, Golden Fiddles, in which she plays a character whose own life takes several dramatic turns. Co-produced by Jasper, Alta.-based Wacko Entertainment Corp. and the South Australian Film Corp., the show is the first to spring from a CanadaAustralia co-production treaty signed in 1990, and attracted more than 80 per cent of Australian viewers when it aired there last August. (The two companies plan to shoot a second project in Canada next year). Compelling but occasionally heavy-handed, Golden Fiddles is a fable about the bad things that can follow good fortune.
The movie opens just before Christmas, 1929, on the farm of the Balfour family in South Australia. Although the family is closeknit and happy, hard times are taking their toll on Walter and Anne Balfour Qohn Bach and Nelligan) and their four children. A worldwide depression is looming. And Australia is in the throes of a drought that has almost devastated the family’s savings. It is a situation in which the Balfours have to “make a penny stretch like elastic,” as 18-year-old Norman (Cameron Daddo) describes it.
Faced with those bleak circumstances, everyone in the family has to make painful sacrifices. Although he is in love with a girl who lives on a neighboring farm, Norman is too poor to propose setting up house with her. His sister Kitty (popular Australian television actress Rachel Friend) is forced to forgo a higher education to become a housekeeper for an aristocratic woman whose teenage daughter takes delight in humiliating the young woman. Elsa (Pippa Grandison), an aspiring violinist, turns down the opportunity to compete for a
musical scholarship when she cannot afford train fare to the competition. And 10-year-old Bob (the likable and charming Hamish Fletcher), who narrates the story, loses his pet pony when his father sells the animal to raise money for the mortgage.
Although the stoic Anne Balfour often tells her children, “We’re not poor, we just haven’t got any money,” even she begins to waver in her optimism. As Bob puts it, his mother realizes not only that “not having any money meant you were poor,” but that “the poor were utterly helpless.”
The Balfours’ fortunes suddenly change when Anne’s great-uncle dies, leaving her an immense inheritance—and the family’s worries about money a quickly fading memory. But by then, it has become clear that Golden Fiddles is not just the story of the Balfours themselves: it is also a parable about the downside of upward mobility. The day after being notified of her windfall, a euphoric Anne presses a crisp one-pound note into the hands
of each of her children, with the stem instruction, “This is just for squandering.” It is a delightful scene, heady with the family’s sense of relief from years of toil and worry. But when the Balfours completely forsake their humble roots, moving to Adelaide and surrounding themselves with the best that money can buy, it becomes clear that they risk squandering many other things as well.
Soon, the family members begin to subordinate concern for one another to the demands of establishing themselves in high society. At times, writer Sheila Sibley’s script, based on the novel of the same title by Australian author Mary Grant Bruce, lacks subtlety. Particularly clumsy is her treatment of Kitty, who is transformed from a principled young woman into a callous socialite almost overnight. But for the most part, Sibley realistically evokes the price of blind ambition. Typical is her rendering of Elsa, who bribes a master violinist to give her lessons and invites a reluctant music critic to her first public recital, despite strong evidence that money has not bought her talent.
Under the direction of Quebec film-maker Claude Fournier—who directed the movie adaptation of Gabrielle Roy’s classic The Tin Flute—Golden Fiddled strong, colorful cast easily compensates for the occasional bout of black-and-white moralizing. The four actors— all Australian—who portray the Balfour children give genuinely endearing performances. And true to form, Nelligan brings a rich theatricality to the central role of Anne, delivering a stirring performance in a fanciful tale about the high price of being rich.
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