In Victoria, the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary has been conducting its Bird Rehabilitation Program at nearby Won Wron Correctional Centre for nearly two decades. One morning, whilst reading The Age, director Craig Monahan stumbled upon an article about the facility; it’s been ten long years since he read that article, and in that time, Healing has gone through several drafts, years of research, and a few funding applications – but it’s finally here, and it was worth the wait.
Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) is in prison for the murder of his best friend, and has had no contact with the outside world for 18 years. Nearing the end of his sentence, he is moved Won Wron, a low-security prison farm near Melbourne, and is assigned to case worker Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving). Seeking to help the sanctuary with an overcrowding problem, Matt begins a bird rehabilitation program at the prison, and quickly realises that it’s also helping to rehabilitate the inmates, particularly Viktor, timid first-time offender Paul (Xavier Samuel) and perpetual inmate Shane (Mark Leonard Winter).
Monahan’s third feature film is one of the best prison dramas I’ve seen, and that’s because it places a strong emphasis on the need for the rehabilitation of prisoners about to re-enter the big wide world. Most prison dramas are about escapes, executions or the tough life on the inside, and whilst there are aspects of that side of prison life in Healing, the film’s main focus is the rehabilitation of prisoners. The film isn’t set in the traditional prison setting – concrete walls, bars, handcuffs – but is instead in the beautiful Australian countryside, with no fences in sight. This is a stroke of genius by Monahan, and is realised by Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who has made the film look absolutely stunning. Lesnie has made the birds his focus and has used countless slow motion and close up shots to make it easy for the audience to feel the same connection to the birds as Viktor and Paul. Gorgeous shots of the birds in flight, rousing their feathers and spreading their wings, or close ups of an owl’s big, blinking eyes – these shots dominate the frame, and they’re truly extraordinary.
Healing could be accused of tipping into the sappy side and of being just a tad too long, but – and I don’t say this often – the film’s slow pace actually works in its favour. Little by little, co-writers Monahan and Alison Nisselle tease out the details behind our main characters – why they act the way they do, why they need to be healed, and what it was that caused them to end up where they are. Viktor, Paul and Shane are composites of many prisoners that Monahan met during the research phase of pre-production; perhaps this is why they, and Weaving’s character, are so well-rounded, and have a real emotional depth.
The acting is superb throughout the entire film. Don Hany is wonderful as the angry and remorseful Viktor, who finds a purpose in caring for the birds. Hugo Weaving is steadfast as the prison officer who sees potential in each of his cases; youngsters Samuel and Winter are fantastic as two men, from different worlds, who have found themselves in the same place because of a single act, for which they will suffer for the rest of their lives. Tony Martin and Justine Clarke have great supporting roles as Matt’s co-workers at the prison, and they demonstrate the different outlooks on the criminal class – cynicism, pity and hope.
Yes, it’s a slow burner, and it’s sappy at times – but its phenomenal cast, great direction and stunning cinematography give Healing all that it needs to soar far above the rest.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Healing was released in Australian cinemas today.