Celia (1989)

Director Ann Turner
Writers Ann Turner
Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie, Victoria Longley, Mary-Anne Fahey
Genre Drama
Tagline A tale of innocence corrupted.

Talk us through it

Celia Carmichael dotes on her grandmother, who naturally dies in her sleep at the start of the movie. A book read to her at school gives Celia recurrent nightmares featuring monsters of the slimy hand variety. Her parents are pretty repressive in that 1950s way so Celia is delighted when a new family moves in next door, Alice Tanner the mother is outgoing and the three kids immediately adopt Celia into their gang.

Trouble is on the horizon however as Alice and her husband are active members of the Communist Party, and it's not long before Celia's father, Ray, bans her from playing with her new friends. If that's not enough Ray directly involves himself in getting Mr Tanner sacked from his job as an electrical engineer, leading to the Tanners leaving for the dubious prospects of Sydney.

Celia's other obsession is with her pet rabbit, the rather large Murgatroid. She drags the poor thing with her everywhere and you just know that can't be good. Sure enough a rival gang is involved in a bit of "hot cross bumming". As if this all isn't enough Celia has her rabbit confiscated by the Victorian State Government who are attempting to combat a bunny plague destroying the rural economy. Celia blames her Uncle, the local policeman, who went beyond the call of duty in my opinion to grab the pampered creature. Later, and with surprisingly the help of her mother, Celia is given a certificate to get her rabbit back from Melbourne Zoo.

Just when you think we might be in for a happy ending Celia takes a walk on the wild side with devastating results.


Celia starts as a case study of a sensitive nine year old growing up in conservative Melbourne in the late 1950s, but soon departs from the expected coming of age flick to become a completely different beast. Director/Writer Ann Turner manages to encapsulate an era, mixes in some family hijinxs, and then simply layers on the horror elements to present a tragedy that can be best compared to Peter Jackson's outstanding movie Heavenly Creatures. It's the multi layered comment on Australia society at the time that I believe raises Celia above and beyond being simply another "kid growing up in the Suburb wasteland" swamp that the movie at first appears to be going to get bogged down in.

As a script writer Ann Turner is kicking some majors, and the strength of the script here shines through with the supporting characters. Celia may be our movie focus but four other characters add the depth and polish to this film that make it stand out from the crowd at 6 o'clock swill time. Firstly Ray Carmichael was simply a study in conservative paranoia, the sort of brain washing of the gullible that John Howard pulled off with the "kids overboard" saga, or Dubya's increasingly hysterical outpourings over "weapons of mass destruction" being used to justify, against UN mandate, the invasion of another sovereign country, that sideline U.S democracy and I would say decency. Ray believes in the rhetoric and believes in a "red menace". Strangely he's also drawn to the feisty Alice Tanner, who he either tries to chat up or harangues for her political believes. Clearly in late 1950s Victoria tolerance is out the window. In the final block of the movie Ray accuses his own wife of being a dupe to left wing propaganda, while ironically Ray himself is toeing the party life far more successfully than anyone at the local branch of the "Workers" party. Excellent stuff, and a well needed look into the machinations of right wing shenanigans in this country. Sorry if this is starting to sound all "chardonnay socialist" but having lived through the moral vacuum that was John Howard's Australia you kind of get slightly cynical at best.

It's the two older female support Actresses that really drive home Turner's "time's they are a changing" message, that admittedly in the wash up is maybe just a plot device. Alice Tanner is the free thinking radical, who has time for her children, and even has time for the troubled next door neighbor kid Celia. She's the stand in for the emerging modern woman who can think for herself, something completely alien to Ray Carmichael's Australia. One of the outstanding concepts of Celia is the Tanners being forced from their new home due to Ray first and foremost. While it may be seen as a victory for the right, Alice's left wing ideals have taken root with surprisingly Pat Carmichael. There's a fifth column in Ray's conservative suburban paradise, and it's in his own home. Sterling stuff, but hey if this movie was a solid study in political viewpoints of the 1950s then we wouldn't be covering it here at ScaryMinds. Hang onto your linen it's on to the good stuff!

While the supporting cast are adding a great deal of depth to Celia, it's naturally the main character that is the primary focus. We first meet Celia when she discovers her beloved Grandmother has died in her sleep overnight. Director Turner immediately starts hinting that while the Roos might not be bounding just yet in the top paddock, they are certainly eyeing the activity up. Celia, who we learn is imaginative, starts to see her Grandmother in all sorts of places giving a hint about the former relationship between the two, and the fact that Celia is not in a position to "move on". This is brought to abrupt focus by Ray's decision to burn Granny's books, surprisingly with a heavy communist flavour, and Celia's emotional reaction to the clear illusion to Nazi Germany. Celia definitely needs some help as the stifling nature of the Carmichael house hold is having a detrimental effect on her, including recurrent nightmares about monsters from a children's book read to her at school. Celia next fixates on the Tanners who arrive with a ready made gang of children for her to bond with. As soon as Ray learns there's reds under the beds in his neighborhood, and he's not getting into a certain bed, Celia is stopped from playing with the Tanner kids. Crucially Ray decides to buy a much wanted rabbit for Celia as a sort of bribe to not see the Tanners. Celia sticks to her guns, and in one of those plot holes this movie periodically throws up, still gets the bunny of desire. Following the Victorian Government's war on rabbits involving a detention center for the pet variety, and Mom getting a backbone and emerging as a person in her own right via fighting for Celia to get her rabbit back, it's pretty devastating that the rabbit is found drowned. All Celia's props have been effectively kicked out from her, and Celia will react with tragic results.

There is no denying the strenght of Turner's script, that helps hold this film up. Pity another Director wasn't called in to add the sparkle and money shots to the actual movie. Turner points and shots and forgets Audiences tend to get feed up with that approcah.

For no apparent reason Turner is going to lengths to make the rabbit plague explicit to the audience. Plenty of footage from the time the movie is set in of bunny rampant, mass kills, and the results of a chemical solution. While it sort of worked as a device to make us aware that a trip to the cinema was a highlight of 1950s white middle class folks' lives, I couldn't quite work out why Turner kept going back to the same well. There might have been some attempt at mirroring the rabbit plague on communism as an attack on values of the time, but quite frankly I was hoping the film would move it on up and get where it was going without the detours.

Director/Writer Ann Turner has her horror elements pretty much sorted. Besides some slimy hands reaching through windows, curtsy of Celia's imagination, there's a mask the children find that takes on mystical properties in their minds. Add in some voodoo elements, that don't effectively work but provide a preview of Celia's retaliation, and you are good to go.

Interestingly, for students of Australian Cinema, Ann Turner was viewed as the next big thing based on Celia. She wasn't and really as a Director she isn't bring anything new to the table or taking any risks behind the camera. The script for Celia is excellent but the actual movie itself could have done with some polish. Turner is simply a "point and shoot" Director, there's no art here.

Rebecca Smart (Celia Carmichael) is outstanding and carry's the film through the majority of it's running time, there's very few scenes she's not in. Based on this performance you would have expected a huge future for the young actress, but surprisingly it hasn't happened. Nicholas Eadie (Ray Carmichael) is equally adept in his role, and looks to have strode out The Sullivans without missing a conservative step. The really star of the show however is Victoria Longley (Alice Tanner) who lights up the screen in every scene she appears in. Excellent, and award winning performance. Mary-Anne Fahey (Pat Carmichael), who I vaguely think went on to a career in comedy, also nails things as the almost invisible suburban house wife of the 1950s who is gradually finding her own voice.

Chris Neal provided the score, sorry didn't take much notice of it.

Summary Execution

I actually knew nothing about Celia prior to the movie's appearance on the release schedule. One of those Aussie movies that don't get the attention they deserve amid the over hyped barrage of lesser films. I was pleasant surprised to find that Celia contained depths of social satire, horror elements that actually propelled the movie forwarded, and a shock ending that I wasn't expecting. Ann Turner has given us one of the great tragedies of Australian cinema and not surprisingly most of us were blissfully unaware of it.

Not entirely sure how available Celia will be in either Australia or foreign markets. Umbrella have released a region 4 package that is available via their website click through for the local markets, but I haven't noted either a R1 or R2 release. Worth while checking your local online movie emporium of total destruction I guess or import from Down Under.

Celia was a movie that arrived under my radar giving me no chance to form any preconceptions as to how good it would be. The script is excellent and for sure there's enough meat on the bone here for most viewers, but I'm vaguely disappointed no finesse was added via the Director trying for something different. To all intents and purposely this film could have been a made for television outing. Full recommendation, worth catching, with some slight more work it could have been a classic. Laddle yourself a bowl of rabbit stew and get stuck in.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

Solid script and story telling going down here, off set by some standard Directing from behind the camera. Worth trying to find a copy.