Drugs, addiction, manic obsession — it’s an oft-told tale but “Candy” is a particularly clear-eyed view on the allure and subsequent destructive power of drugs; in this case heroin.

Directed by Australia’s Neil Armfield and starring Heath Ledger back in his native land and localized accent (and it’s incredibly sexy), “Candy” traces the rapid downward spiral of a couple hooked irrevocably on each other and smack, not necessarily in that order. Dan (Ledger) is a self-professed poet with all the charm and mannerisms of a modern-day Rimbaud, without the talent or will to actually produce something. Candy (Abbie Cornish) is an aspiring painter who falls headlong for Dan and his habit of shooting up (she herself had previously only sniffed the stuff). They click immediately, but the opening scenes that show them riding The Rotor, an amusement-park ride that pushes screaming people against a circular wall with enormous centrifugal force, already forebodes and defines what their relationship will be about.

The film is divided into three parts. The first section, entitled “Heaven,” comes off like a thousand underwear adverts (Emporio Armani et al) mashed together and unfolding to MTV-friendly rock. In other words, Candy and Dan can’t keep their scantily clad limbs off each other and neither can they stop dipping into their heroin stash. Their twin obsessions feed off each other and the pleasure they get from both activities double and redouble their need and joy.

Director Neil Armfield
Run Time 108 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Sept. 22, 2007

But as their father-figure mentor and chemistry professor Caspar (Geoffrey Rush, channeling William Burroughs) tells them ever-so-suavely: “When you can quit, you don’t want to. When you want to quit, you can’t.” Pretty soon addiction tightens its death-grip on their minds and bodies but Dan and Candy rationalize that they need smack for great sex, and great sex is what comprises their love.

This first section is beautifully shot and utterly stylish — it doesn’t glamorize drug use so much as exalt the whole state of obsession and the first stages of love, excessively enhanced by the charm and sheer visual impact of the couple. Candy, especially, recalls every metaphor her name conjures and more — she seems to have transported herself straight from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on angel wings. Dan is heartthrob incarnate, combining a roguish grace with buff masculinity and his entire being radiates with longing for his two “candies” — the girl and the drug.

Their fall from grace is a hurtling one, first a pitstop to “Earth,” before a fast tumble to “Hell.” Candy feels the burn of the fire quicker and more acutely than Dan: She stops painting as soon as the cash to support their addiction dries up, and resorts to prostitution. It’s Dan who encourages her: “You’re heterosexual, you’ll just be doing what you’re good at. I’d be hopeless with all that gay stuff.” (Mmm, yeah, like in “Brokeback Mountain.”)

Candy succumbs, and for a brief while that seems to work for them, until she discovers she’s pregnant. Excited about the prospect of becoming parents and sobered temporarily, they make a gigantic effort to clean up by moving from Sydney (with all its temptations and the seductive Caspar) to Melbourne.

This is when the film goes a bit off-kilter in terms of drug realism; the detox process is just too pretty for credibility. The most effective argument against drug-use is the (literal) gut-spilling ugliness and humiliation of withdrawal and detox but Dan and Candy remain attractive throughout (the most they get is a little grungy and goth . . . big deal). So the film falls short of the menacing brilliance of “Trainspotting” or the self-deprecating, low-temperature despair of “Drugstore Cowboy” — you almost start to think that if this is the worst that can happen, then heck, why not indulge?

But then, Armfield is not out to preach or change minds or lives. His stolid nonjudgmental viewpoint charges the film, a neutral undercurrent that anchors the story from becoming too glamorous, tragic or political. In this sense, “Candy” isn’t really about drugs at all but a look at how two people deploy heroin as a means to maintain the heat of their red-hot relationship. Their so-called “callings” can’t help sustain their love or lives, they have no role-models except the unabashedly hedonistic Caspar who concocts smack in his chemistry lab (which he willingly shares with the couple) and they have no real friends apart from each other. What else are they going to do? That their chosen tool had been smack instead of booze or, say, serial killing perhaps reflects what being young and in love in Australia is about.

In the end, “Candy” is a love story — one that’s unapologetically romantic and sexy. It leaves a strange aftertaste, reminding us of the destructive madness and glorious idiocy of love, when two people tear into each other and ferociously consume the whole bag of goodies in one go. Like candy.

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