August 19, 2008

Combine and Stir Gently


APRON STRINGS (M - violence and offensive language) starring Scott Wills, Jennifer Ludlam, Jodie Rimmer, Laila Rouass. Directed by Sima Urale. 90 mins. Showing now * * * -------------------- MICHAEL (NATHAN Whitaker), has returned from the UK with his TV chef mother Anita (Laila Rouass), a kind of Indian Nigella Lawson or Kiwi Padma Lakshmi, all sensuous ethnic glamour and Bollywood backing track. He's desperate to connect with his Indian side so heads to Auckland's possibly most multicultural suburb of Otahuhu and inveigles his way into a curry house with a family connection where he is soon making jalebi sweets and hearing the old stories without revealing who he is.

Barry (Scott Wills), aged 35, also lives with his mother Lorna (Jennifer Ludlam), who runs a traditional cake shop nearby and administers litres of the whitest and pinkest frosting. The Vietnamese neighbours are keen to buy her business, but pride, fear of change and a morsel of racism keep her batting away their offers.

Barry, a feckless, hapless individual, wants to run a business funded by the sale of his mother's shop but is prevented by his low quotient of intelligence, work ethic and moral fibre. Other than that, he's ready to go. He feels he just needs a bit of luck - the luck his neighbours suggest is down to 16-hour days - and to persuade his old-fashioned and mollycoddling mum that it is time to retire. Oh, and he doesn't like her mash and overboiled veges and would rather eat after boozing it

up at the local Indian. Every night.

These parallels - food, family, work - are interesting enough, but in Apron Strings they are contrasted a mite too conveniently. Whereas Barry is unsuited to his ambition, Michael is unsuited to his culture. He has secrets, ones of which the local Sikh community might be less accepting than his urbane mother and her chilled partner (the dependable Peter Elliot, with quality facial hair). Lorna and Barry battle in a working-class Pakeha way as Michael and Anita cross swords in a middle-class expat way (Barcelona chairs, Annie Proulx on the bedside table). Elliot's character and Anita also have a bit of a tiff and he unfortunately disappears from view.

Wills, a gifted actor, makes Barry's lazy gambling drunk look easy, although the script, by Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor, doesn't give him quite enough chance to layer his performance. Barry is supposed to be a fool but he is also hard to sympathise with. Because of his and the experienced Ludlam's skill, however, their inevitable showdown, complete with slopped food, holds your attention completely and creates a rare moment on screen. Yet somehow it also feels a little stagey. Lorna's smothering, unswerving ways are driven by her own deep fears, having lost her husband some years back, something her independent- minded daughter Virginia (the always good Jodie Rimmer) confronts in an appropriately uncompromising manner. Virginia's own big surprise is handled as if with welding gloves, but perhaps the light-drama genre does sometimes demand oversized signposts.

Among the universally good acting, Rouass more than holds her own. She is an English professional who has been on Footballers' Wives and Casualty. The fact that she looks too young to be the mother of Michael (she's 33) is slightly distracting, although my partner gave her the benefit of the Indians-look-younger doubt.

It's a pity the elements of light relief - the Vietnamese bakers and Barry's no- nonsense grandmother - are so infrequent. On that note, there's a montage of scenes near the end that have incredible life and colour - more of this was needed in the film's centre.

Apron Strings is incredibly well finished, which we might call the Peter Jackson effect. Rarely does a New Zealand film now appear that doesn't look and sound the part and this one looks and sounds a lot like Auckland. It's not quite our Monsoon Wedding or Bend it Like Beckham, but it's well worth catching on the big screen.


THE PITCH: Watch this spice.

WATCH OUT FOR: Preparing the food.


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