As Julia Leigh’s ponderously pretentious Sleeping Beauty attested earlier this year, art films dealing with the sex trade have a nasty habit of being the kind of movies that scream: “look at how shocking and subversive I am!”
Thankfully, J. Harkness’ Birthday screams no such things. Sure, this chastening look into the loveless lives of prostitutes and their clientele might have lost a thing or two in translation from stage to screen, but at least it avoids being the kind of high-art malarkey that exploits the subject with inscrutable characters, piles of pointless rhetoric and deliberately controversial handling of taboo themes. Most importantly, Birthday has a sound reason to exist – and a concrete point to make — which is a great deal more than can be said about films of a similar ilk, Sleeping Beauty included.
Set over the course of a single night within a dimly lit brothel, the film follows a prostitute named M (Natalie Eleftheriadis) on her birthday as she endeavours to placate her colleagues (Kestie Morassi and Ra Chapman) as well as her clients (Travis McMahon and Richard Wilson) as they struggle to make sense of their lonesome lives, all the while wishing someone would come along and make sense of hers. It makes for a pensive 104 minutes, most of which unfolds via lengthy exchanges that are far more humble in nature than the lewdness I was expecting (save the heavy profanity). Empowered by a talented ensemble of Australian actors, Harkness’ screenplay does an excellent job at humanising his cast of intertwining characters, even if he does rely heavily on anecdotal dialogue to propel the story forward – a trait many stage-adapted films have struggled to shake. Still, you’ve got to admire Harkness’ restraint; a scene involving a priest and prostitute sounds like the makings of a dirty joke, but it actually amounts to a weighty philosophical discussion about the dissonance between divine and earthbound love. Strangely enough, this is a movie about sex workers featuring barely any sex. But the more the film tenderly unspools, the more it becomes clear how that’s actually the point: in the 21st century, love is the new lust.
It goes without saying that Birthday isn’t going to be everyone’s cuppa; it’s not particularly sexy, nor all that dramatic, which is more than a little deceptive given the blurb. I suppose you could say it’s an introverted film about an extroverted subject, which is what makes it such a delicate, unique experience. And, much like someone’s birthday, such individuality is cause for celebration.
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