Bet (Jan Adele) discovers her daughter-in-law Lilli (Judy Davis) at the caravan park. Lilli is talking to Bet’s granddaughter Ally (Claudia Karvan), who does not know that Lilli is her mother. Summary by Richard Kuipers.
Laura Jones’s screenplay richly details the characters in the half-hour leading up to the moment of revelation. Lilli has spent her life running away from responsibility and is unsure how to react when suddenly confronted by Ally, the daughter she has never known. Bet knows exactly how she feels about her daughter-in-law. The conflict between demonstrative Bet and emotionally vulnerable Lilli supplies High Tide with a rich exploration of mothers and motherhood.
Lilli (Judy Davis), a backup singer in a travelling rock’n'roll show, is left broke and stranded when her car breaks down in the NSW coastal town of Bega. She checks into a caravan park, unaware that Ally (Claudia Karvan), the daughter she gave up 16 years ago as a baby, is living there with Bet (Jan Adele), her paternal grandmother. Bet has told Ally that her mother is dead and warns Lilli not to interfere. Lilli begins a romance with Mick (Colin Friels) and tells him about Ally. Hoping to build a future with Lilli, Nick tells Ally the truth. Ally confronts her mother and grandmother. Lilli asks Ally to leave with her.
High Tide was the second collaboration by director Gillian Armstrong and actress Judy Davis. Both had worked overseas since coming to international attention with My Brilliant Career (1979) – Armstrong directed Mrs Soffel (1984) for MGM, Davis earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for A Passage to India (1984) – before returning to make this touching drama about mothers and motherhood. A commercial hit and well received by most critics, High Tide is an exception to the generally true film industry 'rule’ that says movies about bad mothers don’t work at the box-office. Anchored by Laura Jones’s acutely observant screenplay and driven by terrific performances, High Tide is sometimes bleak but never wallows in anyone’s misery and has some well-timed injections of humour to lighten the mood.
Davis is extraordinarily good in her AFI award-winning role. Without such a precise central performance, audiences may have rejected Lilli and not become involved with the deeply flawed character. Even in Lilli’s least likeable moments, Davis ensures she is compelling and believable as a woman who must overcome a troubled past to have any chance of a brighter future. Jan Adele also won an AFI award as Bet, Lilli’s mother-in-law. A veteran of live cabaret and television guest roles, Adele is wonderful as the fiercely protective grandmother who has also been a mother to Ally since she was born. Nicely counterbalancing this aspect of the character are Bet’s frisky relationships with men and her enthusiasm for singalongs at the local club. The affecting performance of 15-year-old Claudia Karvan as Ally, who likes to surf and is experiencing her first kisses with boys, completes the terrific acting trio. Though men don’t figure very prominently, there are fine contributions from Colin Friels as the well-meaning but clumsy Mick, and Frankie J Holden (graduating from the singer of revival band Ol’ 55 to solid character actor) as Lester, the Elvis impersonator for whom Lilli sings backup.
Worth noting are the setting and Russell Boyd’s cinematography. Shooting in winter in the southern NSW coastal town of Eden, Boyd’s gritty images make this place look like anything but a seaside resort. There is something terribly sad about the run-down town and the caravan park where Ally and Bet live and Lilli is forced to stay. It is a place of transience, not permanence, and it is significant that all three principal characters move somewhere else by the story’s end. Crucially, the screenplay never turns its nose up at anyone who lives there. The honesty and integrity with which High Tide approaches themes of responsibility, loss and the complex emotional landscape of motherhood earns it a high place in Gillian Armstrong’s body of work. Somewhere in between the old-fashioned 'women’s picture’ of days gone by and the 'chick flick’ of more modern times, it speaks from the heart and, to its great credit, never pretends that any of this is easy.
Notes by Richard Kuipers