The Nostradamus Kid
A film by Bob Ellis
Starring Noah Taylor and Miranda Otto
Reviewed by Peter Boyle
This is one of those films that annoys some people, intrigues others and makes some people laugh a lot. The subject matter of The Nostradamus Kid explains this varied reception — it is a semi-autobiographical comedy about a boy growing up as a Seventh Day Adventist in 1950s rural Australia. Not many of us can or want to identify with this sort of background.
So how do you attract an audience to a film about this topic? Of course you sell it as a tale about an "over-sexed and hyperactive youth with a taste for melodrama". Noah Taylor is used to playing the immature writer-to-be who is convinced that there is great significance in his early sexual explorations (The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting) and "the '50s" and "the '60s" have been sufficiently iconocised and mythologised to give the film an exotic flavour and keep an audience's interest.
My first reaction to Nostradamus Kid was that it was a "dull, philistine wank" (Ellis' own words for one common reaction to this film). But after I had gotten over my initial annoyance and had a few conversations about the film (discovering that it was a hit at this year's Edinburgh Festival), I wondered if perhaps there was something more to it. Perhaps Ellis was making an important statement about men and the formation of their attitudes to women — and perhaps the painfully real portrayal of this subject was the source of my annoyance.
Ellis says that he lived much of his early life with a "need for the end of the world". While such an obsession with catastrophe is foisted on a shrinking percentage of recent generations in Australia, some degree of moral hypocrisy and sexual repression remain an unhappy feature of most of our upbringings. Such upbringings help replicate serious distortions of the relations between men and women.
Ellis caricatures the psychology of the religion-twisted adolescent male quite well at two moments in the The Nostradamus Kid. The first is a scene set in 1956 when the protagonist, Ken Elkin (Taylor) is convinced that the next day God will smite the Seventh Day Adventist camp he is attending. Elkin and his mate contemplate going on a rampage and raping all the women in the camp because they have only one day left to live.
The second is during the 1962 missile crisis when Elkin — by then a uni student — is convinced once again that the end is nigh and persuades rich and beautiful Jenni O'Brien (Miranda Otto) to flee the bomb with him and to make out on a ledge in the Blue Mountains, overlooking Sydney by night. ("The world is about to end, baby" — must be one of the worst lines in the desperado's dictionary.)
There is another classic scene. Elkin meets up with the only female childhood friend he had and discovers she has become a stripper and prostitute. They spend one nostalgic night together, she dies tragically shortly after and years later he imagines he might have "saved" her and perhaps salvaged his one chance of companionship with a woman.
Okay, we're convinced that growing up in Seventh Day Adventist camps was a bad scene. It certainly helped make Elkin a real pain. But haven't we heard this sort of story too many times before? And wouldn't it have been more interesting if the protagonist's attitudes had been challenged even a little during his years as a student in the 1960s? Does Ellis trade a mite too heavily on his Seventh Day Adventist background, as Woody Allen has done on his Jewish background in too many movies to count? Does Portnoy's Complaint have to be recreated in an Aussie Seventh Day Adventist version? I think I feel a second round of annoyance coming on.