One of the wonderful side effects of Australian New Wave films of the 1970’s such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was the birth of what has become known as Ozploitation. Two of the major figures in the production of low budget genre pictures in 70’s and 80’s Australia were producer Anthony I. Ginnane and screen writer Everett De Roche. Between them they worked on Patrick (1978), Thirst (1978), Long Weekend (1978), Harlequin (1980), The Survivor (1981), Road Games (1981) and Razorback (1984). These are some of the most accomplished genre pictures ever produced in Australia, and still to this day remain the most well known. Of this selection of titles Harlequin is perhaps the most obscure, an obscurity which is undeserving because there are a lot of positive aspects to the film. The film is anchored by a brilliantly enigmatic turn by Robert Powell as the mysterious magician Gregory Wolfe. Powell also took the lead in the Ginnane produced adaptation of James Herbert’s The Survivor. The De Roche screenplay is a modern reinterpretation of the Rasputin narrative, and De Roche does little to hide the historical parallels, and in fact plays them up on numerous occasions. Much of the tension derives from the fact that we are never entirely sure if Wolfe possesses genuine psychic and supernatural abilities or whether he is just an accomplished con artist. This tension is important because the film chooses to explore most of its ideas through dialogue rather than action.
The film paints a particularly bleak picture about modern politics - a deep cynicism about political motivation and the manner in which individuals must shut the door of their conscience in order to progress is represented by the character of Nick Rast (David Hemmings). Rast is the most complicated figure in the film - corruptible and weak (he is both a political puppet and an adulterer) he nevertheless possesses an emotional core due to a son dying of leukaemia. His marriage to Sandra (Carmen Duncan) was one of political convenience, and her icy demeanour speaks of a long lasting contempt for the base manner in which Rast capitulates to Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford), an arch political manipulator who lusts for power by proxy. Into this tense familial and political spectrum comes the innocent magician Gregory Wolfe. After seeming to cure their son of his disease Wolfe is welcomed into the family unit by the love starved wife. The danger represented by Wolfe is political indifference. He is a far more philosophical figure who is able to see beyond politics into a more metaphysical sphere of thought. This is particularly troubling for Wheelan, who recognises that his influence on the Rast household could have catastrophic effects for his machinations.
Wolfe becomes a satirical figure who is able to illustrate the pettiness of politics and the social circle that moves in its wake. Towards the end of the film Wolfe finally shows his true powers (this involves firing lightning out of his mouth and floating in mid air), but this is a last desperate gambit on Wolfe’s part to convince Rast of the correct course of action. In a moment of weakness and indecision in keeping with the characterisation Rast fails the test. The filmmakers wisely keep special effects to a minimum, and when they do appear they are always unconvincing. The mystical fantasy elements are as much conveyed by Powell’s cold and alien quality, and his brilliant costumes, as it is anything to do with visual effects. One of the weaknesses is we never quite understand the motivation of Wolfe. Is he there to do a good political deed by opening the eyes of Rast to the iniquities and squalor of modern politics?, is he there to cure a boy and befriend him, or is he there to provide solace and comfort for a lonely wife? He does all these things, but by the end of the film we are not sure why. The final image which shows how Wolfe has groomed their son to follow in his footsteps seems more like a punishment for the decisions of his father. Although Rast retires from office, this is no comfort to Wolfe who lies at the bottom of water filled quarry.
Harlequin overflows with ideas, and this is perhaps its major problem. There is just too much going on, and the director Simon Wincer doesn’t help with a static delivery that emphasises tableaux over visual dynamism. Most of the film takes place within the Rast residence, and any sense of an outside world is cheaply conveyed. We are never told where the film is set, so it doesn’t work especially well as an allegory of anything topical. The Rasputin elements mean that there is a sense of familiarity as the narrative unfolds, and once this is worked out, suspense is reduced greatly. Were it not for a superb performance from Robert Powell (this might be his greatest acting role) and support from the capable David Hemmings this would be a terrible trudge. As it is interest is just about maintained, but the film will struggle to fend off accusations of boredom.