In the Room Where He Waits is One of the Best Australian Debut Features Around

The James Hotel in Brisbane looks a lot like any other mid budget hotel. It has no personality. It’s clean and anonymous. There’s nothing essentially wrong with it except Tobin Wade (Daniel Monks) can’t leave his room and maybe something else can’t too.

Tobin was in New York about to play Tom Wingfield in a Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie. He was also with his now ex-boyfriend, Adrian. And although he is in Australia for his father’s funeral he is also not in Australia because he is in hotel quarantine. Tobin is in a purgatorial space where he can receive “no gentlemen callers.”

Yet a ‘gentleman caller’ does assert himself in the room through a set of cufflinks, a burgundy dress shirt, and white briefs. An anonymous presence distinct from Tobin’s blue-hued clothing. Initially aggressively not belonging to Tobin like the hotel room itself. 

Timothy Despina Marshall’s queer gothic uses isolation as the core of discomfort. Toby is becoming less of himself as time passes. Whatever strides he made in leaving Brisbane to achieve his dreams of becoming an actor seem to be slipping away as he finds himself overlooking Roma Street Station pretending to the director he is in Los Angeles. His castmate Sienna (Annabel Marshall-Roth) who is playing Laura Wingfield knows where he is. Adrian drove him to the airport, but it was a permanent goodbye. His mother (voiced by Susie Porter) expects that now he is back in Australia he will stay. Whatever confidence he had in playing Tom is slipping away. He can’t go off book and he can barely pay attention to the zoom table reads. 

Tobin ‘plays’ with Grindr waiting to see if the body obsessed hookups will reject him. He can’t meet them in person but he’s testing the waters. Playing a potentially masochistic game with himself. The young man with a disability waiting to be told he doesn’t belong in any of the spaces he needs to inhabit; the stage, the arms of a man who thinks him lovely. The space he is in is hostile; the electricity card keeps mysteriously falling out leaving him in the dark, doors lock, curtains move where there is no air, there are mysterious knocks on the door. 

Despite the hostility the anonymous hotel room wants to keep him. The ‘shit town’ of Brisbane where nothing happens and only losers stay wants to claim him as its own again. Tobin/Tom is in the small apartment in St Louis/Brisbane. He never went to the moon. He could not get Laura Wingfield to blow out her candles and allow him to go on unhaunted.

The script by Dimple Rajyaguru and Timothy Despina Marshall (with Paradox Delilah) relies heavily on Tennessee (Tom) Williams’ breakthrough 1944 play. The Glass Menagerie is a four-hander chamber piece. Tom Wingfield desperately wants to be poet, but it is the depression, and he works in a shoe factory to support his mother Amanda and his fragile older sister Laura. His mother is embittered because she was a beautiful belle back in the Baptist University town, Blue Mountain Mississippi. She made the choice to marry a man who worked on the telephone lines and who one day decided to go long distance and never come back leaving her to raise her two children with barely an income. Laura is a ‘homebody’ – her crippling shyness exacerbated by her limp and her perception of herself as fundamentally useless. 

Amanda wheedles Tom to find a suitor for Laura. By holding her children too tight she has pushed them away. Afraid that Tom will become his father, an alcoholic and drifter, Amanda forces him to consistently seek escape in the world of ‘picture houses’ and literature. Laura has taken to lying to her mother to avoid disappointing her. There is a small spark of hope when Jim O’Connor arrives in the apartment. Formerly the ‘Most likely to succeed’ at the high school both Tom and Laura attended, he hasn’t let life’s disappointments swallow him up. For a moment he enchants Laura making her feel she is beautiful and capable. He sees through her eyes the light shining through her collection of glass animals. He looks at her and finds someone who is aching to be alive. Then after a dance which shatters a glass unicorn and a single kiss with Laura, he tells her he can never see her again because he is engaged. The family shatters and Tom leaves but as his opening monologue states he doesn’t go anywhere without guilt, and he is now a version of his father living all life ‘long distance’ in bars and asking strangers if he exists at all. 

There is a specific reason The Glass Menagerie is the core text Marshall’s film revolves around. Williams’ memory play is one which referenced his own sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and ill health. Tennessee Williams himself was a sickly child who was bullied by his hard drinking father and over-doted on by his mother. Tom and Laura are Rose and Tennessee combined. Tobin Wade (TW) found his Jim in Adrian for a moment, but Jim would never be solely his. Mum was in an unhappy marriage with a man who drank and shrank into himself until he could no longer stay alive. Tobin Wade, Tom Wingfield, and Tennessee Williams all thought they could escape their upbringing – but is Tobin doomed to Tennessee Williams’ perpetual loneliness as a gay man? Or is he doomed to be a version of his ‘loser’ father? Who are the ghosts who haunt him except his own sense of uncertainty and failure? As the film shifts, he becomes as histironic as Amanda, as frustrated as Tom, and as delicate as Laura. 

“I brought it with me,” Tobin tells Sienna of the presence in his room. He is breaking down because he must stay still and reckon with who he is. Fearing never being loved or an artist is all consuming. Tobin might only be in his twenties but he’s flashing forward to a life unlived. Mr Wade hangs over him the same way Mr Wingfield and Mr Williams hung over Tom, Laura, Tennessee, and Rose. Perhaps the dead are luckier?

Through Ben Cotgrove’s lurching cinematography and Joseph Twist’s stinging score the audience is lured immediately into an environment which is possessed. Whether that possession be literal, metaphorical, supernatural, or the splintering of one man’s mind doesn’t much matter to Marshall. What matter is the conversations In the Room Where He Waits spark through genre flourishes. Sienna points out that “gay people aren’t the only people who deal with loneliness,” yet Toby’s loneliness is tinged being an eternal outsider. 

What he is experiencing is a ghost of the past and the future. His father died in squalid circumstances. Absent in life (there is the idea that he was a closeted gay man) Toby is worried that he too will be lonely and forgotten as a man who doesn’t cohere to the beauty standards of the queer community because of his body. The queer community isn’t a monolith, but beauty counts.

Daniel Monks is intoxicating in his phenomenal performance. He’s really the only person “there” — every other interaction is via a screen, a voice, a hallucination, or a set of clothing left behind by someone (or was it?). Suffocating in a hotel, in Brisbane, in a disorienting mental health spiral. Afraid he’s missed his chance to be someone. Raw and authentic, Monks is an undeniable star.

In the Room Where He Waits is as complex as it is brilliant. Not only one of the best queer Australian films of the year it is also one of the best Australian debut features. Haunting, deeply affecting, and resonant.

Director: Timothy Despina Marshall

Cast: Daniel Monks, Susie Porter, Annabel Marshall-Roth

Writers: Timothy Despina Marshall, (story by Dimple Rajyaguru, Paradox Delilah)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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