While scouring the cheap DVD bin at my local Giant Tiger, I struck gold. I found one of my all-time favourite films, Flirting (1991). It was only $2! Flirting is definitely one of my “Top 5 Desert Island Films”. I’ve loved it since the first time it played on Canadian Cable when I was about twelve or thirteen.
So, why did an Australian Film set in 1965 at a Boarding School speak to me so deeply as a tween?
Starring: Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts
Written and Directed by John Duigan
Flirting is the sequel to Australian writer and director John Duigan’s 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke (a film I also adore). It is narrated by the central character of both films Danny Embling (Noah Taylor). Danny has been sent away to boarding school in New South Wales by his parents in the hopes he won’t become a delinquent after the events that occurred in The Year My Voice Broke. At boarding school, 17 year old Danny is the butt of jokes because of his stutter and long nose (for which he is nicknamed “Bird”). He describes life in Boarding School as follows:
One thing about boarding school, 24 hours a day you’re surrounded. Either you abandoned yourself and became a herd animal or you dug a cave deep into your head and skulked inside, peering through your eye sockets.
His only friend is Gilbert, who likes to smoke a pipe and is hardly any more popular than Danny himself. Danny looks down on his fellow classmates as imbeciles and oafs and prefers to read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But, as he is a teenage boy, he does long for female companionship and takes as much pleasure as the other boys at any opportunity given to see the girls from Cirencester Ladies’ College, the girls’ boarding school on the opposite side of the lake.
At a rugby match, Danny’s clever remark that he is only interested in rugby from an anthropological viewpoint because it’s a mating ritual catches the attention of Thandiwe Adjewa, played by the amazing Black British actress Thandie Newton, who has just arrived from school in England. Her father, a Ugandan, is lecturing at university in Canberra. Thandiwe has befriended Melissa and Janet (played by Naomi Watts) but she also sees herself as “above” her fellow students and has to put up with their racism which includes taunts about bananas and Ugandans being only able to compete in the Zoo Olympics. At a debate between the two schools in which Danny, despite his stutter, is able to deliver an eloquent speech on how rugby exemplifies the epitome of human endeavour and Thandiwe throws the debate by quoting the song Tutti Fruitti Au Rutti, the two finally get a chance to speak and Thandiwe invites Danny to the Boarders’ Dance.
Danny ends up not being able to attend the dance because his headmaster thinks his hair is too long. Thandiwe breaks the rules by going to look for him and the two sneak away to his dormitory. Thandiwe explains that although her father is Ugandan, her mother, who is deceased, was Kenyan and had an English mother. After finding a copy of an English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Intimacy and Other Stories on his bed, Thandiwe tells Danny that she met Sartre in Paris.
Danny: What did you say to Sartre?
Thandiwe: I suggested marriage was a doomed institution.
Danny: What did he say?
Thandiwe: He agreed most people marry to please their parents or society.
Danny: Not keen on marriage yourself?
Thandiwe: I see so many terrible ones. People just stop communicating. My father and stepmother are brilliant communicators. They hardly ever talk to each other these days, except in public. Anyway, I doubt I’ll ever find anyone complex enough to keep me interested. I lose interest in people. I imagine they’re far more fascinating than they are. So I’m always disappointed.
Danny: Hard Life.
It’s clear that Thandiwe and Danny are well matched as they both think that are too smart for their surroundings. Thandiwe kisses Danny and demands that he write her. Thandiwe is punished by the headmistress for leaving the dance without permission and is given chores by the prefect, Nicola Radcliffe, played by Nicole Kidman. Soon after, Thandiwe’s letter to Danny is taken by Burke, one of Danny’s constant tormentors and the school’s boxing champion, and is read allowed to his classmates. In the letter, Thandiwe writes: “I’m told your nickname is Bird. Well I like long noses it means your well-endowed-with brains of course”. Word of the letter spreads and Thandiwe ends up getting teased about it. She doesn’t believe Danny when he calls her, pretending to be her father and putting on an “African” accent, and tells her that the letter was stolen. She refuses to partner with him when the two schools work together to put on a school musical. Danny is determined to win Thandiwe back and fains illness in order to take a boat across the lake and find Thandiwe at her school. While at dance class, Nicola Radcliffe explains to Thandiwe that the letter really was stolen. Thandiwe regrets not trusting Danny. By this time, Danny has gotten into the school by climbing into the dormintory window of some of the College’s younger students. They help him find Thandiwe and the two are reunited.
In a fascinating scene which is accompanied by a montage of “African” images from the 40s, 50s and 60s in print and on film, Danny reflects about his knowledge of where Thandiwe comes from:
When I started thinking about Africa I realized that the only images I knew were from old annuals, Tarzan comics and Hollywood movies. Cannibals with bones through their noses, lions tearing the throats out of antelopes, and a lot of wondrous, moving words like Limpopo, Zambezi, Mombasa, Tanganyika.
As Danny and Thandiwe’s relationship grows, he gets to learn about Africa from Thandiwe’s perspective, although he doesn’t really take it all in. He reflects:
Thandiwe started telling me about Africa as she knew it. How her mother was killed during the Mau Mau period in Kenya. How her father wrote books about African nationalism and the problems created as the colonial government scrambled to get out. There had been terrible times for the last few years: The Belgian Congo, Zanzibar, Angola, Kenya, places I’d barely heard of. Often, I never really heard what she said. I’d be staring at her legs. They were very comforting ‘cause sometimes there would be little bruises or marks around her ankles from the elastics in her socks. That’s how come I knew she was real.
While getting ready to perform the musical, the boys discover that they can see the girls getting changed and Burke decides to take a picture. Danny attacks Burke and their fight is broken up by their prefect who proposes that they instead box each other later in the week. Danny and Burke end up boxing and of course Danny is beaten severely. At one point, after sustaining hard blows to the head by Burke, Danny hallucinates that he can see Jean-Paul Sartre in the crowd of students watching the fight. Gilbert and Thandiwe take Danny to the school’s infirmary.
After the performance of the musical, Danny introduces his parents to Thandiwe and her parents. Danny’s mother is obviously shocked and unsettled to be meeting Africans but his father is quite charmed by Milton Adjewa, Thandiwe’s father. Danny and Thandiwe meet later that night and make out in an amusing and awkward scene. Things seem to be going so well for the young couple but the political crisis building in Uganda leads Thandiwe’s parents to return to the country. Thandiwe fears that her father, who has written about government corruption in the country might be a target as he has many enemies. She is right and soon after her father’s return, he is arrested. Thandiwe feels he must return to the country in order to look after her younger brother and sister as her stepmother might also be arrested. Lying about her true departure date, Thandiwe leaves the school a day early in order to spend the night in a motel with Danny. The two get a chance to make love but soon after they are caught by school officials.
Because of his indiscretion, Danny is expelled from St. Albans and returns home to work in his father’s pub. Thandiwe regularly writes him letters from Uganda. In the letters, Danny learns about the deteriorating situation in Uganda, an army general named Idi Amin, and of Thandiwe’s father’s execution. Then the letters stop.
People have speculated that John Duigan’s Danny Embling films are autobiographical. This is not the case, as Duigan explained in a 1996 interview:
To some extent. I used that character to describe my evolving sensibilities on various things, but it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical, except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar. I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had. Like meeting Thandie Newton at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography because you can do anything.
I really love the main theme The Lark Ascending, a composition by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams for violin and orchestra which Duigan uses in both Flirting and The Year My Voice Broke. According to John Duigan, he chose this theme because he thought it reflected Danny’s adolescent yearning.
I watched Flirting during a very dark and troubling time in my life. I had dropped out of junior high and was spending my days watching TV, listening to Ottawa’s Classic Rock Station Chez 106 (This is how I became a fan of Led Zeppelin) and wondering why I was such a freak. I would eventually return to high school but have to withdraw and receive visiting teachers because my social anxiety and depression made attending regular school unbearable. Ever since I can remember, I had felt like an outsider, a misfit and I couldn’t relate to children my age. At the beginning of the film, when Danny talks about digging a cave in his head and skulking inside, I felt that he was describing what I had been doing my whole life. I longed to find someone who would understand and appreciate me. I wanted to fall in love and do pretty much what other teenagers wanted to do when they were in love. But my prospects seemed so slim. The film Flirting gave me hope that I could find love with someone as awkward and intellectually precocious as myself.
Thandie Newton, who was only 16 when she starred in Flirting, began a romantic relationship with John Duigan, who was 39 at the time. She has described the relationship, which lasted for six years, as “traumatic”. In a 2006 interview she stated: “Sexual abuse is shaming. I was in a relationship with a much older person and in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced.” In a 2009 interview she stated: “I was 16. I didn’t tell my parents about it (the relationship) but really young people who are vulnerable have to be looked out for. I’ve just been out to South Africa to Oprah’s Leadership Academy. I looked at the 16-year-old girls there. How can it possibly be right to start a serious relationship with someone that age when you are so much older? I’ve been through a lot of therapy so I sort of know why people do things now.” Despite this rather disturbing revelation, I still love Flirting, even if some parts of it now seem a bit pervy in light of Newton’s relationship with Duigan.
If my older wiser self could speak to my younger lonelier miserable self, I would tell her that “it gets better” and that friendship is really what you should be looking for. For lonely loners who are too smart for their own good, friendship can be far harder to find and maintain than romance. I was able to get into a romantic relationship at 17 with a 25 year old before I had any real friends. This was disastrous and pretty traumatic. But soon after, I made two of my dearest friends, who I’m proud to say are still in my life after all these years. So, for all you lovely lonely losers out there like I was, watch Flirting, it’s a film made for us, but make good friends before you go out trying to find love.
Interesting Trivia: Flirting won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. The film ranked #46 on Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies and The Guardian included Flirting in its list of the Five Best Boarding School Movies. John Duigan would go on to direct Thandie Newton in The Journey of August King (1995) and The Leading Man (1996) starring Jon Bon Jovi.
American Trailer for Flirting available online
Interview (1996) with John Duigan available online
Interview (2006) with Thandie Newton available online
Interview (2009) with Thandie Newton available online
Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies gallery available online
Top of the Class: The Five Best Boarding School Movies 2009 article in The Guardian available online
A List of other great Australian Coming of Age Films courtesy of Queensland Gallery of Modern Art available online