"Children of the Revolution" opens in 1951 with Judy Davis' character spouting Marxist doctrine -- "From each according to his capabilities; to each according to his need" -- without the slightest trace of irony. Her zealotry is brittle and humorless and of a kind that fails utterly to appreciate what people really want. "To tell you the truth," she admits in an occasional moment of self-understanding, "[people] irritate me."
She is also wickedly funny.
As an uncompromising Australian Communist named Joan Fraser, Davis gives a bravura performance that is sly, smart and edgy. Davis ("My Brilliant Career," "Husbands and Wives") has the moxie to take on characters who are hard to like; she just wants the chance to make them indelible.
She gets that chance and delivers in "Children of the Revolution," a black comedy about stridency written and directed by Australian Peter Duncan and employing some of his country's most accomplished actors -- Davis, Sam Neill and Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush ("Shine").
But "Children of the Revolution" is most emphatically Davis' film. Her Joan Fraser has the undiluted political passion of one who doesn't stand the slightest chance of ever exercising any power. That reality doesn't cause her to moderate her revolutionary fervor; it only ensures her single-mindedness. She virtually shakes with devotion to Marxism-Leninism and idolatry to Josef Stalin, to whom she pens loves letters.
Others in her Communist cell in Sydney are both attracted and cowed by her vehemence. They also appreciate that she's nuts.
Naturally, they disappoint her. To Rush's hapless Zack Welch, a half-hearted fellow traveler who is in love with her, she says accusingly, "You do this because of me and not because you believe." Rush can only stare back at her guiltily.
The movie follows Joan over a 30-odd year period, introducing her with wildly unkempt red hair and leaving her with wildly unkempt gray hair. First-time director Duncan uses conventional documentary techniques to great satiric effect, employing interviews with key characters and black-and-white newsreels to tell Joan's tumultuous life story.
It is tumultuous because Joan has an ideological ardor that is beyond the reach of facts. The world may be in agreement that Stalin is a genocidal maniac; Joan knows that he is the victim of a capitalist smear campaign. So when Uncle Joe, smitten by Joan's letters, summons her to Moscow, she eagerly obeys. Duncan amusingly uses Soviet-style red stars to trace her route to the Russian capital.
Once there, "Children" shifts to broad comedy, presenting a Stalin, played by a pock-marked F. Murray Abraham, who is addled and love-lorn but still fearsome enough that his aides make sure to laugh precisely the correct amount of time at all his jokes. He refers to the Soviet people as his "pussycats," leads his aides, including Khrushchev, in a song-and-dance rendition of "I Get a Kick Out of You" (the most incongruous reprisal of the song since black sharecroppers sang it in "Blazing Saddles") and gropes at Joan with all the guile of a teen-ager in a movie theater.
Soon after, Joan ends up in bed with the Supreme Leader for a momentous session of love-making that leads to a.) Stalin's death from over-exertion, and b.) Joan's pregnancy. She is whisked back to Sydney, where the malleable Rush agrees to marry her and help raise her son, whom, of course, is named Joe.
They are often joined at home by Neill ("The Piano" and "Jurassic Park"), a debonair double agent code-named Nine who is confused about where his national loyalties lie. He, too, enjoyed a tryst with Joan in Moscow, which raises his hopes that Joe is his son and that Joan could love him. But Joan is no more capable of loving David than she is of loving Welch.
It is only through little Joe that Joan gains a glimmer of understanding about her one-time lover. Although Joan raises Joe as a child of the revolution, he views politics more as a way to get dates than to effect social reform. That is, until he discovers who his true father is and begins to emulate the old man. Little Joe, chillingly played by Richard Roxburgh, doesn't just grow a Stalinesque mustache -- as a ruthless police union leader, he begins to ape his father's brutal form of politics.
Joan, of course, is appalled that her son represents policemen, the same people who regularly throw her in jail. More troubling, even she divines Joe's ruthlessness and has a suspicion about its genetic origins.
Something is out of kilter in these events. In conceiving Stalin as a clown, director Duncan ultimately undermines his own plot. His Stalin is riotous, not murderous. Maybe he could father Robin Williams, but a sociopath like Little Joe? Doesn't seem likely.
Duncan also concludes "Children" with a condemnation of a popular culture that is willing to love a villain, especially if he is confessional. It is funny but has the feel of a throwaway ending in a film that otherwise crackles with wit and intelligence.
Davis, herself, is guilty of no such compromises. She creates a character who is at once exasperating and endearing. You can't help thinking how out-of-touch she is as she tearfully watches a statue of Lenin toppled on the television screen. You also can't help feeling warmly toward her, an unreconstructed Communist.
'Children of the Revolution'
Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill and Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Peter Duncan
Released by Miramax
Rated R (language)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 5/16/97