Better Together: Australian Fairy Tales, Celia, And The Tale Of Ruby Rose

by Rachel Bellwoar

Individually, Celia (1989) and The Tale of Ruby Rose (1987) are already spellbinding but Umbrella Entertainment’s decision to package them together is a stroke of genius. They share so much in common yet, without knowing them well, you’d have no reason to realize it.

Celia is where my interest in this double feature started and I was pretty ecstatic when I heard it was coming out. It seemed like a bonus to get a second film, but Tale of Ruby Rose isn’t a movie Umbrella Entertainment threw in for no reason (and if I’m wrong, they struck Australian cinema gold). These two movies were paired together on purpose. Designed as a two-disc set, Ruby Rose’s disc is a little less fancy, going right into the film without a main menu, and neither one has subtitles, but it sets these films as equals, instead of marking one as the bonus feature.
Directed and written by Ann Turner, Celia begins with Celia (Rebecca Smart) finding her gran’s body. It’s right before Celia’s birthday and the Christmas holidays, when she’s going to be off from school. For her birthday, Gran (Margaret Ricketts) had promised to buy Celia a rabbit, but Celia’s dad (Nicholas Eadie) thinks their vermin and won’t agree to let her keep one as a pet (a sentiment that will come to be shared by Australia’s government).
Celia continues to see her Gran sometimes. She also sees the Hobyahs from a story at school. In the book, the Hobyahs’ stole a little old woman from a little old man when he didn’t listen to his dog and Celia’s parents display a similar reluctance to listen to Celia. They lock her out of Gran’s room. They don’t address her grief. Celia’s mom (Marie-Anne Fahey) thinks she’s convinced her that a possum woke her up, not a hobyah, but viewers know Celia isn’t convinced.
When a new family, the Tanners, move into the house next door, Celia quickly attaches herself to the children and their mother, Alice (Victoria Longley), who Celia thinks looks like her gran from old photos. My favorite scene is when Celia’s father offers to buy her a rabbit if she’ll stay away from them, and we know how much she wants one, but Celia hands the rabbit back, and her father (unable to comprehend that his plan hasn’t worked) buys the rabbit for her anyway, acting like she agreed to his terms.
Celia’s nine-years-old but from the first scene, where she’s faced with death, Celia is confronted with adult issues. What’s makes Celia such a successful film is that Turner allows Celia to be mature beyond her years. That doesn’t mean she always is, but the film recognizes her capableness and gives children credit. Likewise, adults are capable of recognizing their mistakes and learning from them. No excuses are made when they don’t, but change doesn’t ensure a happy ending. Sometimes the damage is already done and whatever opinion you have of Celia it’s not a film you can truly assess until you’ve seen the ending. Umbrella Entertainment includes two interviews Turner did with male critics and in both you can pick up on a condescending tone towards the “disturbing” ending but sometimes things in life go horribly wrong. Turner doesn’t sugarcoat that.
Ruby Rose’s Ruby (Melita Jurisic) is a married woman but the circumstances of her upbringing (her husband was the second person she ever spoke to, she lived in such isolation) have left her a child in many ways. Set in the mountains of Tasmania, Ruby’s husband (Chris Haywood) skins wallabies and possums for a living. If you’re not used to it, the first wallaby corpse is a real, “You’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. Nature holds power in this movie because the dangers of living in it are real. Directed and written by Roger Scholes, there’s a visceral-ness to it all, the mud sucking at Ruby’s feet and everyone in woolens.
Like Celia and her nightly hobyah visits, Ruby is afraid of the dark and has developed rituals to protect herself and her family from it, but where Celia’s rituals are vengeful, Ruby’s are harmless. Ruby’s husband doesn’t want to humor them, however, so when Ruby starts to feel they are losing their effect, she sets off on her own for answers.
Ruby Rose isn’t a pretentious film. Ruby and her husband live with a homeless boy, Gem (Rod Zuanic), who they treat as their son and the film gives us this backstory in a text block towards the beginning. It’s not an eloquent way of delivering information but it gets the job done.
In Celia, the repeated theme music by Chris Neal gives the film a fairy tale hypnotism, even when what’s happening on-screen is horrific. In Ruby Rose, it’s the haunting sound of Ruby’s voiceovers. Like Celia, Ruby’s relationship with her grandmother (Sheila Florance) is an important one, though she doesn’t know her very well. At the end we finally meet her father (Wilkie Collins), who has a lot to answer for, but the next scene is Ruby trudging in the snow. The film skips over their entire meeting. This gap will make some bonkers but it’s for decisions like that why I watch films, and The Tale of Ruby Rose is a great one. Luckily it was paired with Celia so I was able to find out.
Celia/The Tale of Ruby Rose is available now on DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. It’s listed as region 4 but I was able to play it on a region 1 player.

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