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A Date With Stalin

Children of the Revolution
Philip Le Masurier

Party Animals: Hard-core Australian Communist Joan (Judy Advise) never lets go of her fervent faith in the possibility of world revolution.

'Revolution' finds the fun in socialist dreams

By Richard von Busack

THE OUTSTANDING COMEDY Children of the Revolution is being sold with a picture of a baby wearing a Stalin mustache and a Red Army hat. Don't be fooled. This is one of the highlights of the year. The film takes place in a parallel-world version of Australia, where a union leader, Joe Welch (Richard Roxburgh), has brought the nation to a standstill.

Told in flashback, the story combines the faith of a fervent Stalinist with elements of The Omen. Such is the unpopularity of Communism in the 1950s, the Australians even have a referendum on whether to outlaw the party. In pain, the hard-core believer Joan (Judy Davis) reaches out to Stalin (F. Murray Abraham), sending him passionate letters begging for acknowledgment.

The miracle happens. The aging, querulous Stalin sees her photo, thinks she's hot stuff and sends for her. Joan turns out to be more than Stalin's heart can stand, and she brings his illegitimate child back to Australia. Despite the shadowy presence of "Nine" (Sam Neill), a secret agent who may actually be the father of the baby; despite also the loving surrogate fatherhood of Welch (Shine's Geoffrey Rush, from ), young Joe begins to show signs of strangeness.

Joe grows into his mother's revolutionary leanings, going to prison rather than be drafted. When he emerges, he begins a political career as a trade unionist that outshines his mother's hopes for him, rising to crypto-totalitarian power even as his mother's hopes crumble with the Berlin Wall. Joe has too much of his old man in him--he's a killer, and his mother knows it only too well.

Two other characters mirror Joan's dashed hopes: Neill's smooth double agent (he's in his own James Bond movie) has his melancholy, John Le Carré­style fate; Rush's Welch, who is never Joan's first love, is too whipped to crush us with his sad fidelity (the undertones are there, but the movie doesn't invite us to weep).

Abraham gives us a slice of robust vaudeville as Stalin (stuffing his trousers like a bullfighter for his big date). Children of the Revolution has fine use of music, too. Prokofiev and Shostakovich reflect the majesty of the Soviet vision, while Billy Bragg's lovely "Tender Comrade" is a threnody for it. The cruel T. Rex song that lends its title to the movie is the film's punch line.

Children of the Revolution expertly mixes various comedy styles, from the slapstick to the romantic. There's intelligent theft here (the singing-commissar musical numbers from Silk Stockings), as well as genuine inspiration.

A story this involved, spanning four decades, needs a first-rate performance to make it hang together, and Davis is outstanding--mad, hot-eyed, always lovable. She's comic when she's being moved to the marrow by the nearness of Stalin; and she's poignant in later years, when she has to recognize the nature of the beast. Generally, when women age 40 years on screen, we're supposed to see what noble paragons of wisdom they become. Her Joan is bent under the passing of time, but the ideals still blaze away even after she realizes that they're hopeless.

In one scene she rages at the TV broadcasting news of glasnost, ranting that Gorbachev is just Ronald McDonald without the makeup. When the outburst is over, she realizes she has to just lump it, and sit down and drink her tea like the old woman she's become. Hers isn't the story of a fool. In this formidable debut, writer/director Peter Duncan grants that living with a dream of justice isn't wasting one's life.

Children of the Revolution (R; 112 min.), directed and written by Peter Duncan, photographed by Martin McGrath and starring Judy Davis.

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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