Little Fish is an unusually lyrical Australian movie about drug abuse and crime, and the best stretch might come in roughly the middle. Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett), who has spent four years clean after being in thrall to heroin during her twenties, has wandered down to a Sydney railway station in the pouring rain. Drugs are easy to find and every-one knows all about them – everyone knows that you can score at the station and she does, within minutes. She gets into a car, then out of a car, then goes towards a building, asking a woman with a child where she can find a toilet. Tracy is always on the move, and nearly always alone, and the camera trails her faithfully, keeping a few polite paces behind. She walks into the building and hears singing. And she stops in her tracks.
A choir of uniformed kids from a Catholic school – white, Asian, Middle Eastern – is rehearsing at the station. It might sound ludicrous, but the song they are singing, “Flame Trees”, is by Cold Chisel. Sentimental and crippled by nostalgia – it’s about going back to somewhere you haven’t been in years, trying to pretend nothing’s changed – the song also seems, in this setting, to be about a love/hate relationship with Sydney, a seedy old port town where white-collar business intersects easily with criminals and dealers, a city of bent cops and black economies.
But because the song is sung by kids, it sounds innocent in a way that it never could when the glass-gargling Jimmy Barnes sang it (it’s not unlike the way that, in Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann milked every bit of corny sadness out of “When Doves Cry” by having a choir of kids interpret it). It now sounds as if it’s about all the things that have yet to happen, rather than all the things that have happened too many times.
One of the real pleasures of this great film is seeing so many good Australasian actors, all on form. Blanchett obviously, but also Hugo Weaving as Lionel Dawson, the man Tracy was actually buying for. Weaving is famous for his irrepressible sneer, so one of the best things he did to prepare for this role – a former rugby league star fallen into a long addiction – was to grow a thick goatee that hides his mouth. Now he looks like someone else. As Tracy’s mother’s ex, Lionel is a father figure to Tracy but not the ideal role model: he first put her on heroin, and when she visits him at home early in this story he is also visited by his regular supplier, corrupt businessman Brad Thompson (Sam Neill). But there’s a genuine tenderness to the Lionel-Tracy relationship and Weaving brings some lovely touches to the part. A druggy Ocker sports star is easy to send up, but Lionel has a touchingly fussy, old-womanish quality: at the crime plot’s tensest moment he offers, Vera Drake-like, to make a nice cup of tea.
You can almost feel relief coming off the screen in waves from these actors, especially Weaving, who gets to play someone complex after years of playing Elrond and Agent Smith (of The Matrix), but also Neill, who has flourished this year in two cold-eyed reptilian parts (in this and Sally Potter’s Yes) and Martin Henderson as Tracy’s brother Ray. We also get Joel Tobeck as Brad’s minder and Bic Runga as a restaurant singer – it makes sense that a movie about underworld Sydney is so infested with Kiwis. The working-class western-suburbs locations and slow, steady build mark Little Fish as a natural follow-up to Rowan Woods’s stunning 1998 film The Boys, although the canvas is larger and the mood a little lighter (it’s like Taran-tino’s leap from the tight Reservoir Dogs to the sprawling Pulp Fiction).
Initially, grasping the shape of the plot might be like trying to reassemble the debris of an explosion, but it all comes together grippingly. And, just incidentally, much of the film is set within the “Little Vietnam” communities of Cabramatta – Tracy works in a Vietnamese video store; her ex, Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), is a Vietnamese immigrant – but it’s not a big deal or the occasion for Crash-style preachiness about multiculturalism. It’s simply part of the flavour of Sydney, a city that Woods must understand pretty well to feel so confident documenting.