It’s a deceptively simple set-up: four 30-something Aussies holiday in South-East Asia and only three of them return – the disappearance of the fourth shrouded in mystery.
Dave Flannery (Joel Edgerton) is an average guy, with a pretty average life. He builds boats for a living and retires to his comfortable coastal home, where he lives with two young children and his wife, Alice (Felicity Price), who works part-time teaching English as a second language. Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) is a little younger, but more carefree, planning a trip to Cambodia with her new boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr), an enigmatic businessman. Encouraged by Steph and feeling the creeping suffocation of family life, Alice convinces a hesitant Dave that they should tag along. The four travel together, but Jeremy disappears, never to return.
The film introduces itself on a confident note of ambiguity - Dave fumbling through the Cambodian countryside at dawn, bloodied and dazed – before unveiling its secrets over 90-odd minutes of conversational intrigue and fragmentary flashback. The success of Wish You Were Here lies in its ability to balance these two elements effectively enough to transform a stock-standard suspense plot into a genuinely lively film. Writer-director Keiran Darcy-Smith – along with his partner, co-writer and star Felicity Price – draws very successfully on the wafer-thin premise, ramping up the tension with glimpsed flashbacks that leave the audience thoroughly engaged, but rarely any the wiser as to what has actually occurred. Tracing the rifts that form between the three survivors, we are left to second-guess the motivations and actions of the central trio as the narrative builds to its eventual revelatory climax.
Early versions supposedly centred around one long flashback scene, followed by an ambiguous ending that left the mystery of Jeremy’s disappearance unsolved, but the fragmentary approach provides the narrative with a crucial impetus, allowing the thoughts or actions of characters to trigger hazy, half-forgotten memories. A steady hand from Darcy-Smith ensures the film maintains its focus despite losing a little steam ahead of the climactic twist. Nevertheless, the niggling disappointment of an overly neat conclusion is allayed by the knowledge that an open-ended verdict, though brave, would have been deeply unsatisfactory for most audiences.
A minor reservation, perhaps, for a film in which there is much to like, including solid performances across the board, particularly from the central trio of Edgerton, Palmer and Price, who each bring an authentic ring to their evocations of anguish, fear or dread. Outstanding performances are also gained from the younger cast members – Otto Page and Isabelle Austin-Boyd – as the Flannery children. Visually, the glorious camera-work of Jules O’Loughlin pits the gorgeously picturesque northern shores of Sydney against the vibrant, freewheeling grit of the Cambodian scenes.
The film is partly the product of the Blue-Tongue Films collective – of which Darcy-Smith and Edgerton are both key figures – a creative bunch dedicated to pooling their considerable collective talents to ensure that each others projects come to fruition. Following on from The Square (2008), Hesher (2010), Animal Kingdom (2010) and a string of successful shorts, it seems that Blue-Tongue midas touch has struck again, with the film making a reasonable dent on the Australian box office when released earlier this year. Overseas, the success of Wish You Were Here will no doubt rely on Edgerton's rising international profile, with performances in Warrior and Baz Luhrmann's upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby undoubtedly a factor in the film gaining its world premiere slot at Sundance 2012 as well as an impending US theatrical release. Let's hope we see a UK release in the not too distant future.