Cate Shortland\'s Lore is a shallow, pretentious and unconvincing war drama, according to Andrew Moraitis. Neither art nor entertainment, Shortland\'s film exploits its difficult subject matter to an unpleasant degree.
Cate Shortland did not invent the cliché of the one-emotion, one-idea, student film-ish Australian drama. However – on the basis of her first two films – the director seems obsessed with this limp local sub-genre. Lore may be a German-language film, shot in Gorlitz, Baden-Wurttemberg, Hessen and Schleswig-Holstein, but her new film is just as emotionally inert and thematically dull as her debut, Somersault. Based on a novella in Rachel Seiffert\'s anthology, The Dark Room, Lore feels like a short film adapted to feature length, a small story that doesn\'t engage with the narrative demands of the more extensive format. Visually repetitive and psychologically thin, Lore lacks either the intellectual discipline or the artistic command to translate Shortland\'s ideas about racism and sexuality into a coherent narrative.
Newcomer Saskia Rosendahl stars as Lore, a German teenager struggling to maintain her troubled family unit during the denouement of World War Two. After her parents are arrested, Lore is tasked with escorting her younger siblings to their grandmother\'s house. Through this quest, Lore is psychologically challenged on two levels: first, in her growing awareness of her evil Government, and second, in her visceral and possibly emotional attraction to a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina). On a narrative level, this is a fascinating concept for a war film. Whilst filmmakers have endlessly plundered this period for the purpose of drama, the combination of a traditional adventure and the inevitable challenges that faced this era\'s travellers – let alone children – gives the material originality and thematic weight. Like Debra Granik\'s Winter\'s Bone, Lore reconfigures the structure of the mythological quest story into a more contemporary setting.
Unfortunately, Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee exhibit a poor comprehension of feature-length narrative. If her solid script for ABC\'s The Slap is any indication, then Shortland seems to have a talent for vernacular and psychological precision in short-form writing. Yet, there is something about the film format that brings out the worst in this fledging filmmaker, resulting in story incidents that are shapeless and frequently implausible, despite the authenticity of the production and costume design (courtesy of Silke Fisher and Stefanie Biekers). Preferring a sporadic structure that makes little concession to foreshadowing, Shortland struggles to give distinction or nuance to the supporting characters in the material: it is difficult to give a character an interesting or compelling arc, for instance, when such a character only features in a few consecutive sequences. Moreover, Shortland rarely challenges Lore, either. Frequently, for example, Lore repeatedly expresses racial epithets towards Thomas. Yet, through the context of earlier or later sequences (such as Lore exhibiting shock at pictures of the Holocaust), it is obvious that the blonde-haired and blue-eyed adolescent is not bigoted, merely confused and angry because of her difficult relationship with Thomas. \'Don\'t worry\', the filmmakers patronisingly tell us, \'Lore is as dull and PC a proxy as you could hope for, she just looks like a Nazi\'. Conversely, the film petulantly assigns reproach to the adult characters, which are almost-always revealed as xenophobic or sexually manipulative in increasingly tiresome reversals. The failure to engage with Lore\'s ideology, throwing in racial tension to give the interpersonal conflict between her and Thomas a superficial frisson, highlights Shortland\'s inadequacies as a storyteller: Lore is a perpetually unformed surrogate figure, only interesting when shrieking epithets and a victim, mostly, of the darker adult world.
On a visual level, Shortland offers pretentiously hyperactive direction, and the affect is deadening. In comparison to the equally stylised work of Andrea Arnold, for instance, you recognise the issues of Shortland\'s approach: whilst the British director combines intimate close ups with the necessity of master shots – creating a subtly expressionistic approach – Shortland fails to express a similarly coherent geography. Instead, the film is constructed via a series of close ups from long lenses, edited mostly as a series of jump cuts. Therefore, whilst Adam Arkapaw\'s lyrical, intense photography is a solid addition to his oeuvre (Animal Kingdom, Snowtown), his work is unfortunately at the service of an implausible filmmaking approach, simply jumping from one visual idea to the other without sustaining any of them. The technique is instinctive to the point of intellectual triteness.
Moreover, it is depressing that Shortland\'s direction revels in the material\'s violence. Whilst you give Shortland the benefit of the doubt that exploitation was not her intention, her editing frequently laps up the story\'s various corpses (human and animal) with invasive close ups. It\'s not enough that the family dog is shot in the opening sequence, for instance: Shortland feels the need to impose a close up on the animal\'s wound, too. Shortland might think that this approach is \'edgy\' (one critic described it as an anti-bourgeois statement ... or something), but these sequences are frequently troubling: when the writer-director does not quite know how to articulate characters\' psychology, she throws in a more conventional moment of violence to give the scene a visual kick. It\'s an approach better suited to exploitative cinema than a war drama, falling back on violence when a nuanced thematic development or an actually surprising reversal seems too challenging a prospect.
The acting is similarly dispirited. Rosendahl is okay as Lore, bringing a degree of focus and intensity to a wan audience proxy. The other children are fine, too, but the adult actors are frequently histrionic, struggling to delineate a recognisable motivation in their nasty authority figures. It is depressing to see Ursina Lardi – so good in Michael Haneke\'s The White Ribbon – reduced to exaggeration as Lore\'s mother, indicating the character\'s self-pity with overinflated physical gestures. Frankly, there is a little too much \'acting\' going on, as Shortland struggles to rein in the older actors to a more intimate, restrained level or, perhaps, pushing them to further levels of indication. Either way, the performances illustrate Shortland\'s lack of subtlety in terms of characterisation.
Visually, Shortland\'s Lore recalls the work of much, much better directors like Haneke, Arnold and – particularly – Campion. A missed opportunity, Lore would have been a tantalising prospect as directed by those filmmakers, as this unchallenging adaptation is a shallow representation of sex, violence and ideology.