Film Review: Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible

This fascinating documentary celebrates the life and work of film editor Jill Bilcock with help from a positively glittering selection of her friends and colleagues.

It’s a labour of love for writer, director, co-producer, co-editor and co-cinematographer Axel Grigor, and the evocative title says it all. Early on director Philip Noyce states that Bilcock is your dance partner in the cinema, as she leads you through films. There’s also much here about the underappreciated and often mysterious art of film editing itself, and the inimitable style that she’s developed over some 50 years or so.

Opening with clips of Noyce, Cate Blanchett (who says Bilcock is “irreverent yet respectful of others”) and director Bruce Beresford (“Jill Bilcock is one of the best editors in the world”), we then see Bilcock in her Brunswick offices editing The Dressmaker. Her sense of humour is immediately on display as she laughs at the sight of a grungy Judy Davis in the bath. Bilcock talks to the camera about her youth, and the details are rather vague, yet we get just enough about how she grew up with a lot of time on her own as her mother was always working, and she and her two brothers created imaginary worlds for themselves.

Becoming a student at Swinburne University at the age of 15, Bilcock fell into film production pretty much by chance and on a whim. She was amongst the first students there to do the filmmaking degree, even though she admits there was not much studying going on, and she collaborated a lot with Fred Schepisi, who also appears to wax lyrical about his old friend.

Black and white footage of forgotten TV commercials and a young David Williamson in a short piece comprise some of her earliest work. Schepisi’s encouragement later led her to England and labour on a 1970 one-hour movie about the band Procol Harum, then to a year in India, where she wound up playing small parts as bad girls in Bollywood epics.

However, we’re here for her work on the bigscreen. When she mentions Richard Lowenstein (whose eye-liner she often adjusted) this leads to discussion of her first proper feature as editor, his Strikebound, and his collaboration with the late lamented Michael Hutchence, Dogs In Space. A wild, druggy, out-of-control shoot, it proved quite a contrast to her next gig as editor on Schepisi’s Evil Angels, although she ruefully notes that, “Nobody wanted me to do it.”

She also notes that it’s wonderfully challenging to work with first-time directors and that’s why she agreed to join Baz Luhrmann on Strictly Ballroom. He naturally appears to thank her for helping put the film together, operating a camera, coordinating the chaos and saving him from disaster. When she explains how she went through the mess of rushes and added sound effects to create that film’s final dance sequence, it’s as enlightening a depiction of the classic editing process as you’ll see in any doco.

The luminaries keep on coming: Muriel’s Wedding co-star Rachel Griffiths dishes out praise and Bilcock describes how she recut the film a few times in order to make Toni Colette’s Muriel look less horrible; Rob Sitch talks about The Dish and how Bilcock knows the critical need for comic timing; Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is discussed as he and Bilcock mention the chances they took in crazily putting it all together; Head On director Ana Kokkinos thanks Bilcock for her work on such a difficult and low-budget movie; and so on.

In the end, perhaps, there isn’t much here about Bilcock the person: her brothers Anthony and Carl only appear briefly, and her partner Roger Savage speaks with great affection, but doesn’t supply too many details. That’s fine, though, as this is mostly about Jill Bilcock the professional, the editor, the artist, and the genuinely amazing work she’s done over the years, much of which so many cinemagoers might never truly understand or even properly notice.

Rated M. Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible is in cinemas now.

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