The 2010 Sydney Film Festival formally opened at the State Theatre on Wednesday night with the world premiere of South Solitary, directed by Shirley Barrett and starring Miranda Otto, Marton Csokas, and Barry Otto. Barrett directed the Cannes-prizewinning Love Serenade (1992), also starring Miranda Otto, which happens to be playing in a restored version here at SFF; but she had not been active for the better part of a decade.

As I’ve stated a couple of times recently, I’m a relatively new but enthusiastic fan and supporter of Australian cinema. And it was heartening to see SFF opening with an Aussie prestige picture featuring popular and beloved local talent. So I’m very sorry to report I didn’t think it was a great film. Its heart is in the right place, and it has nice moments; but it suffers from poor execution and lack of an overarching vision, and is quite tedious at times.

South Solitary is set in 1927 on a remote island off New South Wales. Meredith (Miranda Otto) is a mousey single woman with lots of bad luck and no prospects, obliged to accompany her crotchety elderly uncle (Barry Otto), who has been put in charge of the lighthouse station on the island. There are only a handful of other people living on the ramshackle, maddeningly lonely station, and all of them are dysfunctional or abusive in one way or another. Indiscretions, ill-will, and bad fortune lead to Meredith being trapped on the island in a storm with Csokas’ character, an antisocial lighthouse keeper traumatized by the war. Whether they can learn to console each other’s pain and loneliness becomes the central issue.

Barrett admitted in her comments during the opening ceremony that the film had been completed the day before the premiere. Sadly it shows. The editing is quite rough, and the tone uneven. Some of the dialogue seems stilted (especially Barry Otto’s rants). A couple of major plot points are revealed in a confusing way; others produce groans. To the credit of the filmmakers, Solitary works hard. No fluffy historical epic, it’s refreshingly unromantic, and paints challenging portraits of difficult people. The bleak, grimly beautiful locations are an effective motif for the minimal plot and the emotionally stunted characters.

But things never quite come together. Where the film tries to be edgy, it merely seems murky and unformed; and where it could have used a pinch of romance or narrative drive to elevate it there is usually awkwardness. Miranda Otto is a good actress, and she does her best here. Her curiously neurotic Meredith is nonetheless sweet and charming, only hinting at depths she is too shy or browbeaten to share with most people. We end up caring for her, and are disappointed when the film provides so little else on which to anchor that feeling.

A friend who saw the film with me liked it a lot more than I did; so maybe she’s the target audience and I’m being as fussy as Barry Otto’s character. I’m glad an Australian filmmaker is working outside the box of standard historical romances — but this is a flawed film and I’m looking for more from Barrett’s next effort.