Envy (1999): Aussie Julie Money’s Feature Debut

Toronto Film Festival 1999–Julie Money, a gifted Australian filmmaker, makes an intriguing if flawed feature directorial debut in Envy, a provocative, often unsettling drama about the tragic dissolution of a nuclear family as a result of both internal and external tensions.

Theatrical prospects are iffy for an ambitious film that raises interesting issues about modern family life, youthful love and sexuality, and class disparity and submerged rage in contempo Australian society, but ultimately promises more than it can adequately deliver.

Part family drama, part coming of age saga, part revenge thriller, Envy is a film that tries to accomplish too much within its short time frame of 81 minutes. This is clear from the very first sentence, a voice-over narration that announces: “This is a family story. This is a sex story. This is a love story.” Overall, the film is much more effective as a critical dissection of one family, headed by a domineering, insecure mother, Kate (Anna Lise Phillips), whose “good” intentions for her son Matt lead to disastrous results for all concerned.

Tale begins with a petty crime, when Kate’s black dress is stolen from the clothline in the backyard of her suburban house, where she resides with her husband, Phil (Jeff Truman) and Matt. Theft occurs, when the innocent Matt meets Rachel (Linda Cropper), a sexually alluring blonde, and invites her to his house, not knowing anything about her past or motivations. It turns out Rachel is a white, poor working-class girl, a member of a bunch of hoodlums, led by Nick, who engage in petty crimes, such as harrassing innocent pedestrians, lifting wallets, and so on.

A few days later, during a chance encounter, Kate spots her dress on Rachel and decides to take it back, not realizing the harmful consequences of her vindictive act. From that moment on, narrative assumes the logic of a thriller, in which every minor act of aggression leads to progressively more negative effects, until the entire lives of the main protagonists spin out of control.

In what’s the film’s harshest scene, Rachel and Nick break into Kate’ house, tie Matt to his parents’ bed, brutally torture him, and even force him to reach orgasm. (The movie later asks to what extent their sexual violence qualifies as a rape). The furious Kate becomes obsessed with Rachel, determined to have her pay for her misconduct. Midsection, which is the film’s weakest segment, centers on the ferociously vengeful mom whose irrational behavior severly tests her relationships with both husband and son. That the mother means well (which is the point of the film) doesn’t help much, and that stage actress Anna Lise Phillips severely overacts makes her character less sympathetic and more one-dimensional than it must have been on page.

Nonetheless, here and there, some challenging ideas filter through the underdeveloped scenario. For instance, there’s a touching scene, in which the mother, overly concerned that her son has never made love properly, arranges for Rachel to go back to the house and sleeps with him in a more tender and normal manner. Another challenging idea, which remains academic because it’s not fully explored, is Matt’s repeated claim that he really loves Rachel, that he is not her victim. Envy might have been a more engaging and subtle story if the writers focused on the youngsters rather than on the deranged mother.

The devastating, but not entirely satisfying, closure gives the impression that other endings might have been considered. Money, who acquiting herself more honorably as a director than a writer, imbues her mise-en-scene with tension, and she is also good at framing and pacing, taking full advantage of the harsh visuals provided by her lenser, Graeme Wood.

Unfortunately, the film vascillates between moods too abruptly. In moments, it recalls such borderline exploitation flicks as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Poison Ivy, thrillers in which a seductive, threatenting outsider brings havoc on a reasonably stable and calm family.

Despite shortcomings, Envy should serve as a calling card for Money, a director who seems fearless of tackling controversial issues.


An Adelphi Films production. Produced by Michael Cook. Executive producers, Peter Broderick, Julie Money. Directed by Julie Money.
Screenplay, Jeff Truman, based on the original script Snowdrop by Trevor Shearston. Camera (color), Graeme Wood; editor, Roberta Horslie; music, Andy Evans; production design, Donna Brown; sound (Dolby), Peter Palansky. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 13, 1999. Running time: 81 min.


Kate…Anna Lise Phillips
Phil……….Jeff Truman
Rachel……Linda Cropper