Judy Davis gives a great, fireball performance as Joan Fraser, an Australian communist who in 1949 is just a simple girl with a dream: She wants to meet her idol Joseph Stalin (F. Murray Abraham). Joan is the only one in her cell who bothers to learn Russian so she can write to Big Joe. Her group meets in a pub, hardly the place to launch a workers’ revolution against the prime minister, who wants to ban the Communist Party in Oz. Still, Joan has energy enough for everybody. Simple, smitten Zachary Welch, played by Shine Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, signs on just to bask in her fevered glow.
So begins a swift, stingingly funny satire of sex and politics that marks an auspicious feature debut by Aussie Peter Duncan, a lawyer turned writer and director. Duncan zips through five decades and dozens of characters without reducing the participants to clichTs or slogans. A remarkable cast helps him to keep focused on the core of the piece.
When Joan’s letters strike a nerve in Moscow, Stalin invites her to the Kremlin for a visit. She enjoys a flirtation with double agent David Hoyle (the always compelling Sam Neill) and something more heated with Stalin, played with bluster and charm by Abraham. Their secret adventure in bed leaves Stalin dead and Joan pregnant.
Back home, Joan marries the loyal Zachary, who raises her son, Joe, as his own. Rush finds humor and tender heart in a man whom a lesser actor would have caricatured as a fool. Zachary doesn’t know the identity of the real father, not until Joe (Richard Roxburgh) reaches maturity, enters union politics and grows a mustache just like you know who’s.
All those rallies with Mum have given Joe a kinky jones for jails. He falls hard for Anna (a superb Rachel Griffiths), a cop who indulges his fetish for leather and handcuffs. But soon, Joe is showing the self-serving savagery that Joan had blinded herself to in Stalin. Roxburgh is a find, but this is Davis’ show. Joan, who ages into the Gorbachev era without mellowing, emerges as a cuckoo Mother Courage in a film that wittily bites the hand of the fanaticism that feeds it.