The Tender Hook (The Boxer and the Bombshell), a 2008 neo-noir film from Australian writer/director Jonathan Ogilvie focuses on the classic love triangle. The Tender Hook is a much better and more subtle title for the story as the word Tender has multiple possible meanings: the obvious emotional reference, of course, but also the essential partnership and reliance between a pearl diver and the tender who holds the life line while the pearl diver in under water. Set in 1920s Sydney, the film’s gorgeous sets and bold colours are stunning, but for the most part, although this is a tale of desperate people trapped in their lives of subservience to a vicious underworld figure, the plot’s most heinous twists and turns take place off stage. With most of the violence and tension off screen, the hard-boiled, harsher elements are effectively censored. Perhaps this is why the film, made for $7 million dollars, was a box-office failure with earnings of just over $64,000. In spite of its failings, the film is well worth catching mainly for its fascinating look at Jazz-Age Sydney, beautiful cinematography, its well-drawn characterizations and the manner in which the plot explores some basic fundamentals of human nature.
The Tender Hook is a frame story, and the film begins on a rainy night with the camera focusing on a head-shot of the beautiful Iris (Rose Byrne) as she rides in the back seat of a car. Initially, not a word is spoken but her distress is evident. The car stops on a bridge, and two men alight and unload a trunk. A man, bound and taped is disgorged from the trunk by these two goons--one of whom prolongs the moment by using his foot to show the man the water which presumably indicates his imminent watery death. The bound man struggles and Iris tries to get out of the car. As she tries to unlock the door, a hand comes down on top of hers, pushing the lock down. That hand belongs to McHeath (Hugo Weaving).
Then it’s three months earlier, and we’re back to the events that led to the scene on the bridge….
The next scene opens at a boxing match, and McHeath appears to be a fairly talentless crooner as he entertains the boxing crowd, prematch as King Mac and the Subjects, and while this is the title of his band, it could very well serve to describe how McHeath runs both his shady business practices and his sterile personal life. Standing in the middle of the ring, complete with back up musicians, his song is directed towards the luminously lovely Iris who sits in the front row, eyes intent on McHeath. As it turns out, Iris’s attention isn’t so much adoration as much as it due to McHeath’s expectations that she will critique his performance--although more accurately she must critique the performance of the musicians against McHeath’s crooning. Although the scene isn’t overplayed, it sets the tone for McHeath’s relationship with Iris and also to his two goons, bespectacled Bolshevik Donnie (Tyler Coppin) and hefty Ronnie (John Batchelor). Are these their real names? It seems much more likely that the Bolshevik has been dubbed Donnie as his original Russian name was difficult to pronounce and also because McHeath, in his typical ownership fashion, would rename an employee. So that leaves us with Donnie and Ronnie--a mis-matched teaming of the diminutive, intelligent Russian with the gargantuan, crafty Australian.
When well-built boxer Art Taylor (Matthew Le Nevez) enters the ring, Iris can barely conceal her sexual interest from an ever-monitoring McHeath. Art’s performance indicates his tenacity and his endurance--traits that Iris, as it turns out, has every reason to appreciate. When Iris slips off to the bathroom for a sneaky drug sniff run, Ronnie is sent to follow Iris by a mere nod from the boss. He sits outside the bathroom like a massive human Rottweiler on guard/chaperone/spy duty. Into the bathroom slips Hatter (Kuni Hashimoto)--a man who’s in debt to McHeath and who is an old friend of Iris’s father. Hatter wants Iris’s help, and this relationship proves pivotal to the film’s central double-cross. A few minutes later, when Iris spots Ronnie waiting for her, with just a hint of defiance she slips into Art’s changing room, and the die is cast.
Almost as if he deliberately wants to invite trouble to his door in some sort of twisted experiment of loyalty, McHeath hires Art as a sparring partner for Alby (Luke Carroll), a promising Aborigine boxer. However, McHeath changes his mind after a trip to the cinema to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 film, The Ring (a film in which two boxers compete for the love of one woman). During the pre-film footage of the 1908 World Championship match which was won by Black American Johnson, the crowd boos, hisses and calls out racial slurs at the film clip of the World Champion. Later, McHeath tells Alby that the crowds “like their winners white,” and Art becomes the new contender with the Aborigine delegated to sparring partner. While McHeath’s decision appears to be made on a business basis tainted with racism, there may be a subtler reason to McHeath’s decision--he noted that Art and Alby had become friends. With Art’s promotion (and Alby’s demotion) that friendship (and any possible loyalty between employees) is replaced with bitterness.
McHeath, always well-dressed, and geared into a programme of self-improvement, fancies himself as a bit of a Renaissance man, yet this is a brutal underworld figure who has his finger in every conceivable human vice. McHeath is a thoroughly unappealing, but intelligent, well-groomed thug. Scenes show his self-improvement programme (golf, crooning, Shakespeare) interspersed with savagery in which he uses his favourite weapon--a straight razor. His relationship with Iris is grounded firmly in money (she constantly exceeds her allowance), and his possessiveness and veiled threats of violence leave little doubt as to what will happen to Iris if she strays. As for their negligible sex life, McHeath’s sneak attack lasts for all of two seconds--enough disruption for Iris to wake up just as he finishes.
Even though McHeath keeps Iris under his thumb and in view for most of the time, she still manages to squeeze a few freedoms from life under McHeath’s nose, but the problem with McHeath is you’re never quite sure how much he knows and how much rope he’s giving you to test your loyalty.
So this then is the love-triangle: a gorgeous, young, unhappy woman, a strapping young boxer, and a vicious, but loaded thug. Iris is obviously a woman of expensive habits, and it seems extremely doubtful that Art, who supports his WWI veteran brother who still suffers the after effects of mustard gas, could possibly support Iris in the manner to which she has grown accustomed. Iris organizes a money making venture under McHeath’s nose using Donnie and Ronnie as muscle. McHeath is a formidable adversary, but Donnie supports the action quoting Marx “All property is theft,” while Ronnie sees a connection between his actions to steal from McHeath and the overthrow of Empire or the natural demolishment of patriarchy. This is perhaps one of the film’s most interesting aspects--the way in which “King” McHeath and his “subjects” operate and how he keeps them paranoid and, at times, divisive with a winning “divide and conquer” strategy.
Another role of note is the effervescent Daisy (Pia Miranda), a good-natured loyal friend to Iris who’s desired by both Donnie and Ronnie. They sensibly toss a coin for her as though she has no choice in the matter. Although Daisy is an interesting character, she’s never fully utilized. While we may regret not seeing more of Daisy, her lack of appearance doesn’t hurt the film necessarily. However, Art’s character is never developed and he remains little beyond a muscular stud, and this serves to weaken the film overall.
The Tender Hook is a very stylish film which includes grainy archival footage, and at some points in the film, the current action is digitized and merged into the archival footage. For trivia nuts, some of the songs used in the film are not from the period. Also of note are the frequent stunning camera shots which show Iris through glass--a car window, a fish tank, the bottom of a glass, and these shots emphasize her remoteness and inaccessibility. This is a beautiful film with all the essential ingredients, but somehow the passion leaks out. Nonetheless, any Australian film deserves attention, and The Tender Hook, while flawed, is still well-worth catching.