In search of mystery and wonder, Westerners have long followed an Eastern route. To make the journey shift from knowing chaos to expected serenity, many have risked traveling down a road greatly marred by the potholes of reduction and cliché. In fiction, India and all its attendant exoticism is now so familiar that what began as layered myth has flattened into condescending stereotype. Undaunted by the trap of such tropes, filmmakers continue to mine Eastern spiritualism in the hope of cinematic transcendence.
Australian writer and director Claire McCarthy is the latest Western filmmaker to center her story in the East. In The Waiting City, a seemingly happy couple travel to India with the expectation of finalizing the lengthy adoption of a baby girl. A quick reference back to the movie’s title should serve as an obvious clue that expectation meets with delay and schedules bend in compromise and surrender to the idiosyncrasies of time and place.
Ben (Joel Edgerton) and Fiona (Radha Mitchell) are young, high-achieving and nearly opposite in everything but their love for each other. Fiona, a successful and increasingly stressed-out lawyer, is the embodiment of chaos in comparison to her husband Ben, a mellow musician whose career has not met with similar success. Opposites may attract but the adhesion of contrast often fades into complacency through the passing of time and the laziness of neglect. As they deal with delays and bureaucratic intransigence from the adoption agency, Ben and Fiona are forced to confront the long-simmering issues in their relationship.
Writer and director Claire McCarthy competently balances the incongruities of character and setting, which perilously teeter on the edge of chaos. She is smart to focus on the intimacies of personal connection between Ben and Fiona in conjunction with the quieter moments of travel that elevate their trip through India into a journey. Her care and direction make The Waiting City a pleasant enough trip but one that hardly encourages enthusiastic recommendations for others to experience.
This is a film of scheduled progression that sets out to navigate the dual geographies of exterior and internal place. The Waiting City fails, however, to travel far enough into either territory to achieve a deep or involved level of interest. In part, this is attributable to the film’s obvious ambition for such profundity. Unfortunately, the script is simply too flat and reliant on stereotype for The Waiting City to transcend into the spiritual heights of its ambition.
The Waiting City does not reward a viewer’s patience and the film’s hinted promise of transcendental experience is never found. The film’s metaphors are too heavily presented to offer any great or sustained engagement.
Contrasting the external fragmentation and chaos of India with the inner turmoil and uncertainty of Ben and Fiona is an obvious cinematic trope that is magnified by McCarthy’s reliance on simplistic visual clichés. This is a shame, because the lush cinematography of Denson Baker makes The Waiting City a beautiful movie to watch. Unfortunately, though, the narrative proves far less engaging an experience.
While the essential story is straightforward the The Waiting City suffers from disjointed pacing and an odd, uncertain regard for the strength and interest of its central characters. Even two gifted and dynamic actors such as Radha Mitchell (High Art, Melinda and Melinda) and Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Warrior) struggle to animate characters whose onscreen presence remains flat.
The Waiting City will no doubt gain a larger audience through its recent release on DVD — a disc well padded with bonus material such as a behind the scenes feature, cast and crew interviews, and audio commentary by Radha Mitchell, Joel Edgerton and director Claire McCarthy. Unfortunately, they may come to find that the cinematic journey they experience is not nearly as interesting as the idea presented in the brochure.