This review was originally published on 9/23/22.
Every so often, a performer comes along who never seems to get the attention they deserve. Essie Davis is one of the best actors whose name you might not be familiar with. The New Zealand-based Davis brings a refreshing sense of power and strength every time she steps on screen. The genre doesn’t matter; she’s always a joy to watch. This week, her latest acting effort hits theaters as she steps into the drama, The Justice of Bunny King.
The Justice of Bunny King follows the story of Bunny (Davis), a woman who needs a break. She’s homeless after having recently been released from prison. We learn early that her jail time stemmed from killing her abusive husband in self-defense. She’s trying to find her footing and is working desperately in hopes of regaining custody of her two children. However, nothing is going her way. As her life spirals out of control, she soon reaches her mental and physical limit. Thomasin McKenzie, Angus Stevens, Xana Tang and Amelie Barnes costar in the movie. Gaysorn Thavat directs the film from a script by Sophie Henderson.
Diving straight in, there’s one thing that needs to be said once again: Essie “freaking” Davis. Best known to most as the fierce and fabulous Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Davis is a million miles away from Phryne in this role. However, it works!
In fact, Davis is seemingly the perfect choice to play Bunny. She brings her trademark strength and power to the role. Onscreen, Davis’s persona highlights a sense of pride within Bunny which is vital to this film being successful.
The Justice of Bunny King is not an easy sit. This film is drenched in realism, from the harsh reality of Bunny’s life to the unflinching bureaucracy depicted in the New Zealand government. It doesn’t matter how hard Bunny tries or how many steps she takes; she’s always seemingly in the wrong.
The beauty of Davis’s strength in the lead role is that she injects a sense of hope into what is ultimately a bleak narrative. In her hands, there’s a sense that she may be down, but she’s never out. Davis’ vitality carries this tale, and as the final credits roll, the audience is left with a sense of optimism. New beginnings are possible.
Making her feature film debut, director Gayson Thavat isn’t intimidated by this challenging script. While Davis is undoubtedly in the narrative driver’s seat, Thavat crafts Bunny’s environment effortlessly.
As mentioned, The Justice of Bunny King is grounded in challenging realism, which colors the film’s world. This is a hard reality. The houses are close. A weight hangs over these characters as we see the challenge of simply living their daily lives. Life isn’t easy.
At the same time, these moments suddenly lift, and we’re shown a poignant joy. There’s freedom as Thavat takes a step back and lets the camera run. While there is a sense of humanity throughout this film, it’s never stronger than as we watch Bunny at work. We also see it as Bunny relaxes with Tonyah (McKenzie). They’re in control of their lives for once, and it feels oh-so-good.
The Justice of Bunny King is an acting masterclass. Essie Davis continues to establish herself as an acting treasure, and it is thanks to her particular star persona that The Justice of Bunny King works as well as it does. Ultimately, this would be an entirely different film in the hands of another performer. This complex character study is a challenge. At the same time, though, it is a beautiful look at the strength and resilience of humanity. We’re capable of reaching the highest highs and the lowest lows, but even at our lowest, we can bounce back from anything.
The Justice of Bunny King opens in limited theaters on September 23, 2022. It will be available on September 30 on VOD.
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