Review: Joe Cinque’s ‘Consolation’

Harry McLaurin

In October 1997, ANU law student Anu Singh was charged with the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. Killed as part of a sordid suicide pact of which Cinque was an unknowing participant, Singh twice injected Cinque with potentially lethal doses of heroin while he was asleep, having rst drugged his coffee with Rohypnol. Cinque’s prolonged death came despite a number of friends being aware of Singh’s disturbing plan. Singh and a fellow law student, Madhavi Rao, were put on trial for Cinque’s murder. Singh was found guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility and Rao was acquitted of all charges. Singh served four years in prison where she completed her law degree before going on to do Masters degree in criminology and then a PhD on female offenders.

This angering and troubling tale was originally given a voice in Helen Garner’s book Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which explores whether the single-judge trial at the ACT Supreme Court truly brought justice to Cinque’s grieving family. It examines the greater question of morality beyond the letter of the law and seeks to preserve Cinque’s life in memory and provide justice to his brother and parents whose lives were also destroyed by the actions of Singh’s hideous actions. Sotiris Dounoukos’s adaptation, which shares the same title, examines what happened before the murder. Investigating the mentality and conflicted morals of the friends who were aware of Singh’s plot yet said nothing, and the gradual mental deterioration of Singh which led her to commit such a heinous crime. In that sense, it is a story of ethics, culpability and relationships.

Filmed at ANU and around Canberra, the campus and city play as much a role in the story as the characters. The quiet middle-class suburban setting in which most of the events take place contrast strikingly with the intense drama that unfolds be- tween Singh and her inner circle. While Canberra locals will be able to spot obvious inconsistencies between the cityscape and the lm’s 90s setting, Dounoukos does his best to capture the life of an ANU student involving in the underground drug culture of the time. Indeed, the sheer mundanity of the setting acts as the impetus for the casual drug use which takes place, as the psychedelic effects become an escape for the lonely, desperate and bored. The quiet serene beauty of the ANU cam- pus, which at times resembles a university marketing video, is also at odds with the complexity of the characters and the mental trauma that takes place. Indeed, the lm feels very close to home. There are shots in Chifley, Coombs lecture theatre (renamed ‘University Moot Court’), the law school lawns, Sully’s Creek and University Avenue with the fluff falling from the trees. The fact that these events occurred within this tranquil space is deeply disturbing and unnerving.

Singh, portrayed by Maggie Naouri, conveys a compelling combination of beauty, narcissism and destructiveness. From her first interaction with Cinque in a bar to her final chilling telephone call to the emergency operator after Cinque’s death, you sense the underlying disturbances present in every action she takes. Naouri is believable as we all know someone with her outward characteristics – her intelligence, her somewhat shy demeanour, her beauty and her selfishness.

Yet it is a shock to believe that such a monster could be hidden beneath this everyday personality in a sophisticated and highly educated setting such as ANU. Naouri does an excellent job at showing how Singh’s bodily insecurities spiral out of con- trol into borderline personality disorder, severe depressive disorder and psychotic delusions. Her manipulation of Cinque is painful to watch, but you are given a glimpse into the reason underlying
her actions. Her delusions about her own terminal illness and the need to end her and Cinque’s lives may provide consolation to those angered by the original trial judge’s seeming leniency towards Singh in finding manslaughter rather than murder. Yet understanding the purpose for Singh’s actions no doubt provides little consolation to Cinque’s family given the film’s graphic portrayal of Cinque’s death and the dif culty in empathising with Singh. Indeed Singh is given few redeeming features. As a result you leave the film angered and confused, yet perhaps this is the outcome Dounoukos is seeking – which perhaps mirrors the sentiment felt by Cinque’s family.

Cinque himself, played by Jerome Meyer, displays the gentleness, loyalty and decency that has been attributed to the young engineer. While his seeming ignorance of Singh’s premeditated plot to kill him is explained by his trust and dedication, you gain the sense that his passive presence on screen is designed to de ect attention from him to the actions of his killer and her friends. As a result you gain a deep respect and admiration for Cinque and a deep loathing of Singh.

The most troubling aspect of the lm comes from the culpability and moral apathy of the friends who were aware of Singh’s plot. The role of Singh’s enabler, Rao, who purchased the drugs and set up the ‘farewell’ dinner parties on the pretext that Singh was committing suicide was shocking. It is horrifying when not one guest seeks to confirm the plan with Cinque, with each friend wilfully turning a blind eye to the warning signs of his impending death. The bystander effect, displayed on screen by the worried glances, unease and discomfort of the characters, serves as a lesson for people to seek help for friends struggling with mental illness. While some friends express reservations and seek to intervene, the lack of resolve which you would expect of a person in this situation leads you to resent these characters almost as much as Singh. While Singh is mentally unsound, the stoned, entitled and cavalier attitudes displayed by this group offers little consolation.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a mesmerising and saddening film displaying the worst of human nature. While it may contribute to preserving Cinque’s memory into the future, it leaves you yearning for justice to be served to those morally culpable for Singh’s crimes.