Wish You Were Here is a multi-layered drama/mystery about two Australian couples and a holiday in Cambodia gone awry. In the flashbacks, the foursome enjoys the tropical getaway, indulging in food, shopping, alcohol, and partying. In the present, Dave Flannery (Joel Edgerton) and his family try to carry on with their lives, whilst being haunted by the disappearance of their fellow traveller, Jeremy (Antony Starr). Told in this dual narrative, the film explores the snowball effect of secrets, deceit and betrayal. Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith and co-written with his wife, Felicity Price, this is typical Australian storytelling: a slow-burn, realist narrative that is intensely character driven, and features confronting themes and existential crises.
Edgerton manages to give a good performance as an Aussie bloke being consumed by fear and paranoia; a growing feeling that believably transfers to the audience. Felicity Price plays Alice, Dave’s pregnant wife, who thinks Dave might know more to the story than he is letting on. Amanda Palmer plays Steph, Alice’s sister, who almost on a whim decides to follow Jeremy to Cambodia and convinces the other two to join her. All these characters know a part of the story, which comes to light as the film goes on.
Australians going missing overseas—particularly in South-East Asia—is unfortunately not completely uncommon, so the storyline itself seems like it was ripped right out of the headlines, although not actually based on any particular true event. The film plays with this fear and builds the tension little by little, yet perhaps a tad too slowly; the intentional restraint escalates to the point of tedium. As a result, the ending becomes rushed and is ultimately unsatisfying.
This type of pacing, however, is not uncommon for Australian movies, especially the dramas (of which there are plenty); its main function is to allow the characters and story to develop and, hopefully, give the big reveal at the end more punch. The Boys (1998) and Beautiful Kate (2009) both use the same narrative structure (The Boys uses flash-forwards) but to greater effect, although both also become slightly tedious at times.
Another way in which Wish You Were Here falls short is the way it is shot. This film appears to be almost entirely composed of close-ups and mid-close-ups, usually with an out of focus foreground. Dramatic scenes that utilise these types of shots should allow the audience to see the emotions and reactions of the characters. Yet, here it becomes tired and formulaic; focusing on all that emotion so heavily tends to slow down the story. Furthermore, it means there is a lot of pressure on the actors to carry the mood. Wish You Were Here relies too much on this technique to the extent that it starts to feel a bit contrived.
At the heart of many Australian films is a struggle to define the concept of ‘Australianness’ by exploring it through a small group of characters. Each film provides their own version of a different part of Australian society e.g. the battlers with everything to lose and nothing to gain (The Boys), the physically and emotionally isolated (Beautiful Kate), and the everyman who finds himself in an unfortunate life changing scenario (Wish You Were Here). These may seem like generalisations, but because of the history of Australia and its place in the world (physically, economically, politically, etc.), they provide us with a fascinating and rather accurate portrayal of ‘Australianness’.
Ultimately, Wish You Were Here forces its characters to question who they are and what they are willing to do to move on, to find safety and normality. This is also true for Beautiful Kate and The Boys. The difference is that the latter dramas delve into their themes and characters more effectively.
Overall, Wish You Were Here is a competent film and will probably win a few awards. It’s a fascinating portrayal of real life events and the devastating aftermath. It just takes a long, dramatic and bleak scenic route to arrive at a quick and somewhat unsatisfying ending.