Australia, 1957, and now summer is here Christmas is around the corner, but so is the ninth birthday of Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart) and what she wants most of all is a rabbit. She might not get one, however, for rabbits are now considered pests by the government thanks to the farmers demanding they do something about the animals destroying countless crops, such are their numbers it's not inaccurrate to call it a plague. This means pet rabbits, in spite of being a different type, are growing unpopular too, but Celia could do with a pet to get over the recent death of her beloved granny...
A strange, awkward film, Celia was the feature debut of Australian talent Ann Turner, though that description was not necessarily a bad thing for it's that very hard to classify quality which made it stick in the mind, along with a resolution that left a lot of lingering questions over the sanity of the little girl whose eyes we watch the story unfold through. You could term it a coming of age movie, except that Celia is still very much a child by the end, it's just that she has had some experiences which appear to have warped her fragile mind and you can place the blame for that squarely on conservative Australian society of the fifties.
Turner wished to draw parallels between the rabbit cull and the political mood of the day, which was fervently anti-Communist, so when a family of Reds moves in next door to Celia, she is intrigued thanks to her late granny being a left winger as well. She easily makes friends with their three children and is very impressed with the mother, Alice (the sadly shortlived Victoria Longley), who seems so enlightened and generous of spirit, but her father Ray (Nicholas Eadie) is towing the political line of the day and cannot stand the thought of such people living in such close proximity. Or there could be another reason: Alice keeps resisting his attempts to seduce her.
So what you had here was a film rich in themes and metaphor, only they didn't quite mesh together as snugly as Turner might have anticipated. It's difficult to tell quite what we're intended to take away; the director said it was a film about the adult world's corruption of childhood innocence, an inevitability when we all have to grow up to live in that world eventually, but also how the authorities try and fail to solve the problems of their country by means of distraction, quite a lot on one movie's plate and one which is too much to consume without having to leave leftovers you may not wish to return to. And yet, something in that ambition and the performances Turner coaxed from the cast was undeniably striking.
Smart in particular lived up to her surname and coped with the confusion Celia has to deal with, pitiable in one scene, funny in another, then sinister and even menacing once events are converging on a grim ending. She does get her pet rabbit, a white-furred creature with a black ear almost as big as she is which he dotingly carries around with her, but soon the threat against Murgatroyd, as she calls her, is both symbolic and actual given Celia's young nemesis Stephanie (Amelia Frid) is set on torturing her mentally - and literally tortures the bunny. This appears to make something snap in the girl's sanity, so when Stephanie's father, the local police inspector Burke (William Zappa) tries to enforce the law however unfair and take Murgatroyd to the zoo with hundreds of other animals, Celia's rich fantasy life bleeds over into reality. The monsters of her favourite storybook appear and she sees vanquishing them as the way of getting her pet back. We are left with upheaval and a very dark heart of an era which Turner encapsulated not slickly, but vividly. Music by Chris Neal.