There’s no doubting the tendency for Australian film makers to explore bleak territory – look no further than Animal Kingdom, Beautiful Kate and The Nothing Men as just a few recent examples. All are quality productions but they also give credence to criticisms of bleak-fatigue in local offerings. Matching Jack, from director Nadia Tass (Malcolm) continues the practice in its angsty exploration of childhood cancer, grief and infidelity yet admirably, and with some charm, attempts to mix the magical and the comic into the recipe – no easy task.
Inspired in part by the experiences of co-writer Lynne Renew, whose son suffered leukemia, Matching Jack sees life for an upper middle class family begin to unravel when the film’s namesake (Tom Russell, Last Ride) is diagnosed with leukemia. As it turns out, Jack’s father, the suave David (Richard Roxburgh, Moulin Rouge!) is a serial philanderer which leads mum Marisa (Jacinda Barrett, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) on a desperate pursuit for a suitable bone marrow donor for Jack amongst the possible offspring of her husband’s conquests.
Meanwhile, Jack forms a firm bond with Finn (Kodi Smit-McPhee, soon to be seen in the Hollywood remake of Swedish vamp thriller Let The Right One In) who knows the rigors of leukemia all too well and romance develops between Finn’s single, quirky Irish father Connor (Cold Feet’s James Nesbitt) and Marisa.
Light and shade, hope and suffering are the stuff of life yet strange bedfellows. Similarly in Matching Jack the handling of these themes results in some striking incongruities. The infidelity plotline hammers home a mother’s acutely devoted plight to find her son a donor and with some unexpected humour; but David (despite Roxburgh’s muscular prowess as an actor) becomes an overworked contrivance, a pathetic caricature, such is the prolificacy of his extra-marital romps.
Also at odds is the character of Connor, despite Nesbitt’s signature charm in playing him. The sailor’s irrepressible optimism laced with sea-faring parlance is both uplifting – his orchestration of a thrilling hospital bed-cum-boat ride through the children’s ward is one of the film’s most magical scenes – and grating.
Still, the film’s performances are mostly strong and there’s good support turns from Colin Friels as a straight talking doctor, veteran Julia Blake (Three Dollars) as Jack’s religious grandmother, Fast Forward’s Marg Downey as a kindly nurse and Yvonne Strahovski (I Love You Too) as David’s latest lover.
Matching Jack’s conclusion is a hopeful one (some may say thankfully) but it’s much too tidy and rushed, a pure cookie-cutter Hollywood happy ending that betrays the realistic, at times poignant portrayal of childhood terminal illness that came before it. That said, take your Kleenex. You may well need them.
Matching Jack is released on the 19th of August.
Director: Nadia Tass.
Cast: Jacinda Barrett, Richard Roxburgh, James Nesbitt, Tom Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Colin Friels, Yvonne Strahovski.