Celia (a splendid performance from youngster Rebecca Smart) is a sensitive nine-year-old with a strong imagination who lives with her parents in a suburb of Melbourne (Australia). She has always adored her grandmother, who was something of an embarrassment to the family because of her long-held radical left-wing views.
The film begins with Celia’s discovery of her grandmother’s body – the first of many shocks the child endures.
Set in the repressive 1950s, the story evokes an eventful Christmas holiday which begins innocently and gains momentum with the muster of pet rabbits by the Government and the Communist witch-hunts as the child and adult worlds collide and reach a chilling climax.
Celia provides the thread between the parallel stories. She’s an only child and – after her grandmother’s death – a lonely one, having little in common with her cousin, the daughter of her father’s policeman brother.
She also scares herself with dreams of nasty fantasy creatures called Hobyahs.
But her life brightens when new people – the Tanners – move in next door: they have three children – Meryl (Callie Gray), Karl (Adrian Mitchell), and Steve (Alexander Hutchinson) – and the mother, Alice (Victoria Longley), is far more friendly and sympathetic than Celia’s own mother (Mary-Anne Fahey, unrecognisable from her Kylie Mole persona on The Comedy Company).
Celia quickly forms a gang with the new kids next door to wage war on her spoilt cousin, Stephanie (Amelia Frid), but her friendship with the new neighbours is threatened by the conservative politics of the time.
It’s discovered that the neighbours are Communists, and Celia is ordered not to play with the children any more – an adult order that the child simply cannot understand.
The final blow comes when Celia has finally been given the pet rabbit she always craved (as a bribe to stop her from playing with the kids next door).
A rabbit plague prompts the Victorian Government to enforce a ridiculous law that pet rabbits must be impounded. At first, Celia refuses to give up her rabbit (Murgatroyd), but her Uncle John (William Zappa) – who has his position with the constabulary to maintain – sees that the animal is placed in Melbourne Zoo.
It is how writer-director Ann Turner (in her debut) resolves the drama that makes the film controversial. Celia becomes responsible for an act of startling and malevolent violence – taking revenge on a predatory adult world that has destroyed her childhood – with major ramifications, all of which make the final scenes of the film exceedingly black.
Celia is a very tough-minded film about childhood that works on many levels – emotional, political, social, supernatural and moral. The screenplay won an award from the Australian Writers’ Guild in 1984 for the “Best Unproduced Script”, and it’s undoubtedly a highly original piece of work.
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