Directed By: Ann Turner
Starring: Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie, Victoria Longley
Tag line: "A tale of innocence corrupted"
Trivia: Director Ann Turner was inspired to write this film by an article in the paper about the Bolte government's rabbit muster in the 1950s
Set in the 1950’s and inspired in part by Australia’s rabbit infestation problem (an issue that has plagued the country for many years), director Ann Turner’s Celia was sold in America as a horror film (it was released here with the added title Child of Terror), and while the movie does feature some chilling moments, it is, in reality, the story of an imaginative and troubled young girl whose carefree attitude comes into direct conflict with the world around her.
It’s December, 1957, and Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart), whose beloved grandmother (Margaret Ricketts) recently passed away, is turning nine years old. She’s asked her parents, Ray (Nicholas Eddie) and Pat (Mary-Anne Fahey), to get her a pet rabbit, but her father, much like the Australian government, believes that all rabbits are vermin (newsreel footage of hunters taking out hundreds of rabbits, all at the behest of local authorities, plays daily at the neighborhood cinema). The disappointment young Celia feels when she instead receives a bike on the big day is tempered by the arrival of her new neighbors, the Tanners, with whom she feels an immediate connection. Along with befriending the three Tanner kids: Steve (Alexander Hutchinson), Karl (Adrian Mitchell), and Meryl (Callie Gray), Celia forms a strong bond with their mother, Alice (Victoria Longley). But when its revealed that the Tanners are Communists, Ray orders Celia to stay away from them, going so far as to buy her a pet rabbit (which she names Mergatroid) in exchange for her promising never to play with the Tanner children again. Still, despite giving her word, Celia continues to spend time at the Tanner household, much to the chagrin of both her father and his best friend “Uncle John” (William Zappa), the town’s chief constable. What’s more, a government edict declaring that all pet rabbits are to be rounded up and placed in the local zoo has just been approved. Upset by this turn of events, Celia decides to fight back, but how far is she willing to take her “war” against those who’ve injured her?
What few scares there are in Celia come courtesy of the Hobyahs, a fictional race of creatures that are characters in a story Celia’s teacher, Miss Greenway (Deborra-Lee Furness), frequently reads to her class. Celia is convinced the Hobyahs are all around her, and sees them lurking outside her bedroom window in the middle of the night. She even believes they had a hand in her grandmother’s demise (in the book, the Hobyahs carry off an old woman before setting her house on fire). It’s clear early on that Celia loved her grandmother (her most prized possession is a theater mask that once adorned a shelf in her grandmother's house), who was apparently as free a spirit as Alice Tanner (aside from playing games with the children, Alice allows Celia to stay over for as long as she likes, and as a result, the young girl becomes a fixture at the Tanner Household). The memories of her grandmother, coupled with her relationship with the Tanners, make Celia very, very happy.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Celia's own home life. Her father Ray, though a caring parent, is quite strict, initially refusing to get Celia the pet rabbit she desires. What’s more, when he learns that the Tanners belong to the Australian Peace Council, a communist organization, Ray tells Celia not to visit them any longer (something of a hypocrite, Ray, who’s strongly attracted to his new neighbor, makes aggressive passes at Alice Turner even after he’s discovered her communist ties). It’s also rumored that Celia’s dear old dad had a hand in getting Mr. Tanner (Martin Sharman) fired from his job (he allegedly tipped off his bosses about their employee’s political leanings). Another source of frustration in Celia’s life is Uncle John and his family, notably John's daughter Stephanie (Amelia Frid), who teases Celia and gets the other kids to gang up on her. And because he’s the constable, Uncle John is the one that ends up taking Celia’s rabbit away. These events, and several more that follow, work to break down Celia’s youthful exuberance, leading to a tragedy that shakes not only the Carmichael family, but the community as a whole.
Masterfully directed by first-timer Ann Turner, Celia is told entirely from its title character’s viewpoint, bringing us into Celia’s world of fantasy, hope, and heartbreak, and keeping us there for the duration. Yet, despite its child-like perspective, this is not a film for kids (some scenes, including those with the Hobyahs, are far too intense for younger viewers), and while it does have something in common with 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird (exploring a child’s growing disillusionment with the world around her), it differs from that classic movie in that it doesn’t end with a glimmer of hope; Celia is quite content to remain in the darkness, weaving a tale so disturbing it’ll play on your mind for days to come.