There’s something deeply admirable about the intention of The Combination, tackling identity and ethnic tension in contemporary urban Australia, and although it is full of passion and an uncompromising sense of its own direction – it suffers from a lack of subtlety – particularly in the writing and the central performance of the piece, both the responsibility of actor George Basha who has been working on this clearly personal story for a long time, and who also co-produced the film.
Basha – plays John Morkos, a Lebanese-Australian who’s been in jail for a couple of years. The film opens with his return to his family – mother Mary (wonderfully played by Doris Tounane) and younger brother Charlie (the enigmatic Firass Dirani), who’s fallen in with a bad crowd at school. With no father figure to guide him, it’s John who tries to stop Charlie from getting deeper into trouble with drug dealers, while at the same time re-building his own life – finding work in a local boxing gym and dating blonde and blue-eyed Sydney (Clare Bowen).
But Charlie is naively trapped under the spell of gang leader Zeus (Ali Haider) and continues to experiment with drug dealing and violence, testing John’s patience to the limits. In frustration John takes to the ring, barely able to hold back his contempt for the world around him. He also has to deal with Sydney’s dull and racist parents who try and put an end to their relationship.
Passion can only take a story so far, and the delicate complexities of racism are beyond the grasp of writer Basha and first time director David Field. It’s a plain-to-see macho world that is painted so richly here – either inside the school gangs pumped up with testosterone and pride, or following Lebanese celebrations with belly-dancers and platters of food. All this comes at the expense of rounded characters – especially the women of this story, who are reduced to stereotypes as wailing widows and doe-eyed girlfriends. Basha seems stuck, too, when he needs to move into the Anglo-Australian world, and the scenes with Sydney’s parents reveal a simplistic political polemic.
The young actors around Basha – many drawn as first-timers from the mean streets of Western Sydney – are superb, providing a deep sense of realism to their scenes, and much of the credit here must go to Field, himself an actor with a string of great credits. His rendering of the story on screen is less convincing though – in particular its melodramatic final scenes.