Turning 30 this year – in August, as a matter of fact – is Jocelyn Moorhouse’s superb drama Proof. It is one of my all-time favourite Australian films, and boasts superb performances by its three leads Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, and Geneviève Picot.
To get the unfortunate and awkward bit out of the way: Proof casts a sighted actor as a blind character. On the one hand this is flatly unacceptable and has put a growing dent on the film’s appeal over the past three decades. At the same time, the film is 30 years old. The film industry was less aware of disability representation in 1991 than in 2021, and one has to draw a line somewhere. Anything produced more than five years ago seems to be reasonably forgiveable, but I am always going to note it. Our present cultural industries have to learn to do better.
Martin (Weaving) is a blind man locked in a spiteful battle of wills with his housekeeper Celia (Picot), and engaged in the unexpected hobby of photography. A chance encounter leads Martin to hire Andy (Crowe) – a kitchenhand at a local restaurant – to describe and log his photographs for him. Before long Andy is caught in Martin and Celia’s petty conflict, and his trust in Martin comes into question.
Proof is simply a superb chamber piece of a film: focused closely on its three protagonists, and pushing them through difficult actions and conversations that reveal each of their respective intentions, fears, and flawed behaviours. Its screenplay – by Moorhouse – is an essentially perfect piece of work. It does not rely on surprises or twists. It does not throw its characters into outlandish or unlikely situations. Instead it defines three very distinctive and believable characters, and spins its plot by bumping them into one another.
It presents Martin as a deeply guarded and routine-driven individual. As a child, Martin is told by his mother of the view outside of their window: a garden being tended by an old man. Martin, unable to hear the man, comes to entirely distrust what his mother has described. He has taken a photo of the view, the first of many, but has not shown the photo to anyone. It is a mystery at the core of his character, and his never-ending suspicion ultimately dictates his entire life. Hugo Weaving plays the character’s blindness in the same stagey way that most sighted actors do, but he plays Martin’s core personality with enormous subtety and finesse. At the time it was a career-defining role for him.
As Andy, Crowe undertakes an unexpectedly tricky task. Of the three leads, it is Andy who is the most conventional and easiest with whom to relate. A simple enough young man in an average job, and essentially good-hearted. It is a difficult role to develop; the handholds usually available to an actor are simply not there, and it is largely down to Crowe to build Andy into a three-dimensional character. He does so marvellously. While not as iconic a role as Weaving’s, it was definitely Crowe’s highest profile role to date – and foreshadowed his stunning (and stunningly different) turn in Romper Stomper the following year.
Geneviève Picot has an altogether different challenge as Celia. It is easy to hate her, and the small-minded little ways in which she gently tortures and baits Martin. Over time, however, deeper layers of her personality appear. She ultimately seems the most tragic of the three. It is again a superb performance. For whatever reason, Picot’s career did not break out from Proof; it absolutely deserved to. She continues to act, but very little has matched the quality and size of role she received here. It seems deeply injust.
Moorhouse peppers her drama with moments of levity that are pitch-perfect in transforming Proof from intelligent drama to genuine crowd-pleaser. One sequence involving Martin and Andy visiting a drive-in cinema boasts one of the funniest one-liners in Australian cinema history.
As is often the case with Australian film, today Proof risks being forgotten or overlooked. A remastered edition of blu-ray or 4K is frustratingly unavailable. As it nears its 30th anniversary, it absolutely needs to be revisited by audiences. This is world-class five-star stuff.