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Paul Cox's "A Woman's Tale" is a portrait of an old lady of great wit and courage, who faces death as she has faced everything else, on her own terms. "A Woman's Tale" does not sentimentalize its heroine, does not make her cute or lovable or pull any of those other tricks we use to deny the realities of old age. It allows her strong opinions and a skeptical irony, and makes her into one of the great characters of recent movies.
The old woman's name is Martha. She is played by Sheila Florance, who won the Australian Academy Award for her performance.
She is about 80 years old, and lives in a flat with a cat, a parakeet and a few prized possessions, and she gets around well enough to look after Billy, the disintegrating old man who lives next door.
Her other important relationships include an unpleasant one, with her son, who wants to shelve her in a nursing home; a loving one, with Anna (Gosia Dobrowolska), the visiting nurse; an amused one, with Miss Inchly, who is nearly 10 years older, and a fighting one, with her landlord, who wants her to move.
Martha's secret is that she is dying. She knows it, Anna knows it, and the others will not be given the satisfaction of being told. She wants to die as she has lived, in her own way, in her own apartment, and the zest with which she defends herself is one of the movie's great joys.
The film has been written by Cox as several days in Martha's life, during which she does as much living as some of us would be lucky to manage in a year. She is a co-conspirator in Anna's affair with a married man, and lets the lovers use her bed ("I am going to die in it; you had might as well love in it"). She sees Billy through his usual crises, chats with her pets, goes for walks to check out the neighborhood, and at night, when the pain keeps her awake, she listens to the radio talk shows and calls in with pointed advice.
The movie is not just about her activities, however. It is also about her continued occupation of a body which has served her for eight decades and is now failing her. The movie is quite frank about Martha's physicality. Her face is a mass of wrinkles, her body is too thin, and when we see her in her bath, we are moved with compassion that such a great spirit should inhabit such a frail vessel.
She has her memories, including some erotic ones, and she takes a frank interest in the life of a neighborhood prostitute. At 80, it is not so much that she approves or disapproves as that she has lived a long time and knows what goes on in this world. Her greatest threat comes through an alliance between her landlord, who battles to get rid of her, and her well-meaning son, who thinks he is helping her by his efforts to rid her of independence.
Paul Cox, long a resident of Australia, is one of the best directors of our time. His films often deal with loneliness; his credits include "Man of Flowers," starring Norman Kaye (the Billy of this film) as a gentle recluse; "Lonely Hearts," about a disastrous dating-service match, and "Cactus," about the possibility of blindness. "A Woman's Tale" is one of his best works - one of the best films of 1991 (when it was first screened in this country).
Sheila Florance, who spent most of her life as an actress in Australia, was dying when she made this film about a woman who is dying. She knew it, Cox knew it, and although she was sometimes in pain she focused on the performance and made it her message to the rest of us, about a process we will all face in one way or another.
She died some months after finishing the film; here she still lives, in humor, dignity and a fine proud anger.