Directed by Sotiris Dounoukos

Written by Sotiris Dounoukos and Matt Rubinstein, based on the book by Helen Garner

Rated  M, 102 minutes 

It’s hard to see the consolation. Helen Garner’s book on the crimes of Anu Singh, who killed her boyfriend Joe Cinque in Canberra in 1997, was itself intended as the consolation. 

Singh drugged Cinque with Rohypnol and injected him with heroin; her lawyers said she was mentally ill.  Garner attended her second murder trial in 1999 and the separate trial of her close friend Madhavi Rao, who was charged with murder, manslaughter, attempted murder and administering a stupefying drug. Garner’s purpose, she concluded, was to give voice to a young man who did nothing to deserve his death, and to his parents, left behind in their grief. She felt the courts did little to address their pain. That made the book openly partisan, although Garner twice attempted to interview both women. They refused.

The film is based on evidence from the trials, but told in more linear terms, beginning and ending with the day he died – 26 October 1997. There are no trial scenes and no direct presence of Garner or her book, which begs the connection: where is the consolation?

The director Sotiris Dounoukos, making his debut feature, gives us a version of the events, with multiple viewpoints: an invitation to decide for ourselves, Rashomon-style. The aim, he told The Age’s Karl Quinn at the Melbourne Film Festival (July 22, 2016), was to ‘treat the cinema as a courtroom – so people could enter and take the position of Helen in the book – and that meant embracing the way cinema can offer multiple points of view around a single event…’

I’m not sure what he means. What Dounoukos presents is in no way forensic, as a trial would be. The events are mystifying in terms of human behaviour, but the decision to depict them in real time involves a set of choices about that behaviour, which are then communicated to actors. So the film offers something concrete, as if we are there, with all the implied decisions about what happened. The director’s version, in other words.

In practice, that leaves little room for interpretation of what Singh did. In its place, there is the question of why. And in Madhavi Rao’s case, that question is even more difficult to penetrate. A prelude shows Singh, an attractive Australian girl of Indian parentage (Maggie Naouri, in an impressive performance) meeting the young engineering student Joe Cinque (Jerome Meyer) at a pub in 1994. Three years later they are living together, but all is not calm. Singh obsesses about her weight, neglects her law studies, complains about an undiagnosed illness. She begins taking ipecac after Joe tells her models use it to stay thin; she then blames him for introducing her to it.

Her best friend Madhavi (Sacha Joseph) goes along with everything she says, seemingly without question. When Singh announces a plan to kill herself, Madhavi arranges the farewell party, inviting strangers to witness the ‘event’. They plan to drug Joe so he can’t stop her. When a first attempt fails, Madhavi organises a second farewell dinner party, with friends. The plan now involves heroin – a double suicide for Anu and Joe, except that he knows nothing about it.

One of the many mysteries of the original case was that both women told several friends their intentions and no-one bothered to report them, nor notify Singh’s parents. That becomes the film’s most pressing dramatic question: what were these ‘friends’ thinking? What kind of moral vacuum were they living in, to even attend a ‘farewell’ suicide party?

That’s a good idea on which to hang the film. It raises wider questions about the kind of society we have become, in the same roundabout way that Rowan Woods did in his astonishing debut film The Boys in 1998.  It justifies this film’s existence, even if it gives no clear answers.

Sotiris Dounoukos was a law student in the same year as Singh in Canberra, before he went to film school. He and co-writer Matt Rubinstein do make choices about the way we see the key players, even if they don’t make clear why they acted so callously. In dramatic terms, it’s intriguing but not entirely satisfying. To the extent that they went in search of an honourable ambiguity, they have succeeded, but there may have been a stronger, more complex film in staying close to Garner’s book.