`CHILDREN' PULLS THE PARTY'S LINE.
Call filmmaker Peter Duncan a communist sympathizer, and it's perfectly OK. There's not even the specter of a blacklist.
Because it isn't that Duncan, an Australian, believes in the teachings of Lenin and Marx - it's just that he's able to empathize with those who did.
``Children of the Revolution,'' which he wrote and directed, is a strikingly original satire inspired by emotions that swept over him in 1989 as he watched televised reports from Europe showing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
Having grown up the grandson of a passionate, old-school Communist, Duncan was struck by the devastating implications of the event for such true believers.
``I thought it must be incredibly difficult for such an intelligent person as my grandfather to be confronted with this overwhelming evidence that you were apparently wrong,'' said Duncan, 32.
``What do you do? Do you just write your life off, and say, `I blew that one?' I mean, Communists don't even believe in God, so there's no promise of an afterlife. Or do you go into a state of denial?''
A serious and intriguing question, but Duncan, a lawyer-turned-filmmaker whose intelligence is matched by his brazen wit, decided to explore it with humor.
``I have this absolute adoration of (British comedy troupe) Monty Python and the whole tradition of satiric comedy,'' he said. ``I suppose because of that I developed a sense of satire full-stop.''
The result is a zany, arch comedy that dares to imagine that the real reason for the sudden demise of Joseph Stalin, who breathed his last in March of 1953, was a heart-straining night of ecstasy with a fervent political admirer - one fictional Joan Fraser, played in the movie by Judy Davis.
When morning comes around and the dictator doesn't, his up-till-then terrified and toadying staff is so delighted that they sing ``You're the Top'' to celebrate Joan's achievement.
And when Joan - an Australian who gained an audience with Stalin by enclosing her photo with a stirring letter of support, returns home - she discovers that she's carrying a child.
``I wanted the story to be generational so I could explore the effect that fanaticism has on others. I mean, my mother's conservative because my grandfather was so rabidly leftist. And if you're like Joan, you're really going to want to mold your little lump of clay in your own image.''
So it is that the boy, called Little Joe, grows into an adult (Richard Roxburgh) who only goes along with his mother to political rallies to be a good sport.
But when Joan, in a pique about his lack of conviction, springs the truth on him about his origins, Little Joe becomes obsessed with reading about Stalin and inexorably begins to assume the same power-mad characteristics as his sire. Soon he's organizing labor unions and leading his country to the brink of revolution.
Duncan draws a Shakespearean parallel. ``In `Macbeth,' when the witches say to him, `Thou art and shall be King,' he can't get it out of his brain. It's the same with Joe. He can't help but think about being Stalin's son, and there's a self-fulfilling prophecy there.''
The movie begins as flat-out satire but shifts into a more ambiguous, even poignant mode toward the end. ``The Western experience of communism, if you go back to the '30s and '40s, began as this heady mix of energy and good intentions, and it ended grayly and sadly in front of television screens, with people watching statues of Lenin being razed to the ground,'' said Duncan. ``I felt that the tone had to evolve in order to reflect the history it covered, or it would have just been a gag fest and too flippant.''
The movie offered a role that seemed tailor-made for Australian native Judy Davis - showcasing both the actress's fierce intelligence and her eccentricity - and it also portrayed a character who ages 40 years, from her 30s to her 70s. It won Davis the Australian Film Institute's 1996 award for Best Actress after the movie was released Down Under late last year.
Duncan says it wasn't difficult to land her. ``She is very script-driven, and she just liked the ideas in this movie. Once she signed on, it set a benchmark in terms of assembling the rest of the cast.''
Sam Neill (``The Piano,'' ``Jurassic Park'') was cast as Nine, a spy who becomes a family friend, and Geoffrey Rush (``Shine'') was cast as Welsh, Joan's quietly devoted admirer who agrees to marry her when she returns from Russia with child.
Duncan agrees that Rush's triumph on Oscar night was a stroke of luck in terms of raising the profile of ``Children.'' ``When I cast him, he'd already been in `Shine,' but no one had seen it yet. He was just the new kid on the block, as far as movies. And within 18 months, he'd won an Academy Award.''
Duncan has recently completed a second movie that stars Rush, called ``A Little Bit of Soul,'' which he describes as ``a Faustian tale about two scientists in search of immortality.''
A resident of Sydney who is quite happy to continue living there, Duncan concedes that Australian government financing, which supplied more than two-thirds of the $4.3 million budget for ``Children of the Revolution,'' was the main reason that a first-time filmmaker could get such an audacious and unusual project made. ``The government gets involved because if market forces were allowed to prevail, there'd be no Australian cinema, and they do tend to favor idiosyncratic ideas,'' said Duncan.
But he's eager to stress - quite correctly - that one needn't come from Down Under to appreciate ``Children of the Revolution.''
``It's about experiences that we all shared,'' he said. ``You guys dealt with communism; you knew better than most who Stalin was. You guys led us into Vietnam.
``We all went through the same things, only slightly differently. So you just enjoy the characters and the comedy and the drama, and you get to find out how a place that you don't normally associate with political philosophy, like Australia, coped with it all.''
Photo: (1) ``I wanted the story to be generational so I could explore the effect that fanaticism has on others,'' director Peter Duncan says of ``Children of the Revolution.''
John Lazar/Special to the Daily News
(2) In ``Children of the Revolution,'' Judy Davis plays the true-believer and Geoffrey Rush is her ever-faithful admirer.
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. LIFE|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||May 5, 1997|
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