To put it mildly, 1993 was a hell of a year for New Zealand cinema. The first woman to ever win the Palme d’Or, Jane Campion’s The Piano was the talk of not just Cannes but much of the cinema-going mainstream that year, sweeping audiences away with her unforgettable, New Zealand set period drama. Although not as well known, Stewart Main and Peter Wells’s Desperate Remedies played in the Un Certain Regard stream at Cannes that same year, and despite not receiving the same intense level of attention as Campion’s film, this beautiful, ornate drama remains not just one of the best films from New Zealand ever made, but one of the great unheralded queer classics of the 1990s.
And then, of course, was Jack Be Nimble. A film whose scarcity has been as much a part of the legend surrounding it as the enigmatic, lush dark fantasy world of the film itself, the recent 2K restoration of Garth Maxwell’s suburban gothic classic now playing at the Nightstream virtual film festival will hopefully see this should-be cult film classic finally make its way into the canonical ranks. The film follows twins Jack and Dora (Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) who are placed in an orphanage and separated when their mother has a mental health collapse and is unable to care for them. Dora is welcomed into a pleasant middle-class family, but Jack is not so lucky and forced into the abusive country home of violent, cruel adults and four of the creepiest stepsisters in film history (think of The Shining twins but there’s four of them, they’re feral, and instead of being the ghosts of murder victims, they are living, violent psychopaths). As they reach adulthood, despite their separation, Jack and Dora have never lost the emotional bond that connects them; Jack commits a desperate act and runs to the city to find Dora. For her part, discovering she is psychic, it does not take Dora too long to find Jack.
As the adult Jack, Arquette brings to life a character who is propelled by a palpable, almost radioactive fury, resultant of years of emotional and physical abuse. Dora’s life has afforded her the luxury of being somewhat more chilled out, but her struggles with her newfound psychic talent is torturous, and she seeks the support of her soon-to-be lover Teddy (Bruno Lawrence). With emotions escalating as the stakes are raised with Jack’s creepy-ass sisters hot on their trail with malice in mind, Jack and Dora find they have nothing left to lose, except for each other.
Jack Be Nimble is a dark, supernatural urban fairy tale, but the key to its power lies just as much in its extraordinary beauty as it does its bleak story and powerful performances. Grass, trees, water, flowers – as much as the cold hardness of the film dominates Jack’s life especially, there is something aggressively elemental, even organic in the building blocks that construct the world of Jack Be Nimble. One of the most beautiful yet simultaneously foreboding New Zealand films ever made (which is saying something), Jack Be Nimble is a masterclass in tone, form and the power of strong performances.