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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jonathan Auf Der Heide
By Roderick Heath
Western civilisation’s remarkable capacity for setting up hells on earth at suitably distant places from itself in the Age of Enlightenment saw the primeval landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until 1856, become a place synonymous with harsh extremes and brutality. There the English invaders and the aboriginals engaged in a genocidal war of possession, and some of the harshest penal colonies were erected to banish the domestic losers of the British Empire’s great age of expansion and industrialisation. Thus, the best Australian movies—as opposed to the most popular—usually have a hint of deeply uneasy existential fable to them. Van Diemen’s Land, an oddly unheralded work, is a return to subject matter for Aussie films that was rendered groanworthy by repetition in the colonial revivalism of the ’70s and ’80s: the Convict and Settlement era. But Jonathan Auf Der Heide, an actor making his feature directorial debut, chose to tell an infamous story, one that inherently resists being romanticised. Auf Der Heide expanded Van Diemen’s Land from the short film Hell’s Gate, which dealt with the story of Alexander Pearce and the seven other convicts who escaped with him from the penal settlement of Sarah’s Island, Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce’s subsequent cannibalisation of several of his fellows became one of the most bloody and colourful tales in the already bloody and colourful history of that island.
Pearce’s story, which saw him nicknamed “The Pieman” in later mythology (there’s even a Pieman Creek, named after him, near which the film was shot), recently came back to attention both through Auf Der Heide’s film and the nearly simultaneous Dying Breed, which used the legend of Pearce as the background for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre knock-off. Van Diemen’s Land immediately posits itself as a meditation on the terror and beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, which is distinct from the Australian mainland in several ways: heavily forested and possessing a climate similar to Europe.
Auf Der Heide makes his models and debts, to Herzog and Malick, fairly plain early in the film, but for once, an Aussie director with an eye for artful foreign models chooses them as is appropriate to the material, and moulds them to his own purpose. His film is shot through with a deeply convincing and gruelling sense of physical detail, especially in the early scenes that concentrate, with little dialogue, on the working men, their axes hewing into wood and shoes squelching in mud, hauling great logs into the harbour. There are also notes of black wit to leaven the bloodcurdling, unblinking approach to physical violence, and a cunning approach to the characterisations of the escapees, who are introduced as the anonymous members of a labouring gang. Auf Der Heide commences with a jolt of disorientating humour, showing a huge mouth sloppily chewing on a badly cooked pie, before revealing this is actually an officer, the overseer of a detachment of convicts. It’s more than just a grim joke, though: food is the chief dramatic stake and object of power in the following narrative.
Several of the convicts are Irish, victims of imperialism in subtle and overt manners, but that’s a point Auf Der Heide avoids proselytising into the ground, as finally, their backgrounds and identities place a distant second to their immediate capacity to live and kill. That he illustrates the point indirectly by having Pearce’s voiceover meditations spoken in his native Irish Gaelic rather than in the English he needs to communicate to most of the others, and the internecine, bare tolerance of the Irish, Scots, and English members of the party, which erupts occasionally into brawling, say enough. The Gaelic also carries a strong whiff of something more primal, barely reconstructed by a modern, viciously repressive milieu: the “freedom” that the convicts give themselves, even at its direst end, is only a variation on their lives. Pearce (Oscar Redding, who cowrote the script with Auf Der Heide) is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the men detailed to fell trees at the outset. His crime, for which he was deported to the other end of the world, was the theft of three pairs of shoes—a very Jean Valjean sort of misdeed, but one Auf Der Heide doesn’t tap for any sympathy. Pearce doesn’t mention it until very late in the film, and it becomes more like the ultimate absurdity, the pretexts for which men are reduced to less than men. There’s also a dark echo to his crime, which Auf Der Heide indicates by offering shots of the shoes the men wear and that get dumped along the route: six pairs of shoes, including Pearce’s own, get him to where he finishes up, alone and depraved.
Pearce, along with Bodenham (Thomas Wright), Travers (Paul Ashcroft), Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter), Kennerly (Greg Stone), Little Brown (John Francis Howard), Greenhill (Arthur Angel) ,and Mathers (Torquil Neilson), make a break when they’re sent to a remote edge of the harbour to fell trees under the supervision of Logan (Adrian Mulraney), an infuriatingly garrulous overseer who offers pronouncements like, “There’s freedom in work!” With a mixture of bonhomie and self-satisfaction, Logan offers the crew a share of the decent meal he had partaken of the night before: none of the men take him up on it. Greenhill tackles Logan when the coast is clear, and the men strip him naked to augment their own clothing with vengeful delight. Dalton has to threaten Mathers to make him stop hitting the overseer who asks, “Where are you going? There’s nothing out there!” There is something out there, however: where the men see nothing else, they see each other, alternately as companions in freedom, competitors, enemies stranded together, and, finally, food.
Van Diemen’s Land, whilst offering information in carefully parcelled amounts, essentially reduces historical horror story to a virtually metaphysical simplicity: is it easy to reduce a man to an animal, or is it the man who is truly dangerous? Threat is inherent long before any violence makes itself plain; it’s even inherent when Kennerly says to Logan, with subtly genuine malice, that one of his fellow convicts would much rather be home than stuck with the likes of him. Kennerly and the injured Brown eventually split off from the party; having witnessed Dalton’s killing and deserting to try to make it back to their jailers before they starve, they sense that either way lies probable death. Auf Der Heide leaves the fate of the two men unstated (they did actually make it back to the penal settlement, only to both die in hospital). Dalton seems to be the practical leader at first in restraining Mathers and directing the party. Kennerly is the dominant personality at first, with his earthy humour and sexual anecdotes, but his style soon proves abrasive when he mocks one of his fellows for trying to hunt an animal (“You’ll never catch it! Them imaginations are too fast!”) and starts a brawl amongst the convicts.
The initial plan, to try and make it to present-day Hobart and catch a ship away, gives way to a numbing, physically and spiritually corrosive pounding through bushland that’s seemingly as inhospitable as any desert. The men know far too little about survival in such circumstances to live off the land, and as the ructions deepen and the certainty that starvation looms for all of them, this near-inevitably translates into homicide. Dalton is the first victim, assaulted by Mathers and Travers and strung up to bleed to death. The axe that the convicts brought with them from their tree-felling labour becomes the totem passed between them, a tool of power and murder that some wield more easily than others. Pearce, in fact, initially stands back from the killing, and only develops and comes into specific focus as exceptional because in his quiet, reflective, foreboding nature lies a nihilistic potential to reject humanity with a completeness that eludes his other, more volatile and reactive fellows. “God can keep his heaven,” Pearce decides towards the end, “I am blood.”
Unlike some other recent attempts to create a more probing, unremitting approach to the often awesome violence involved in the country’s first hundred years of white settlement, like Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Van Diemen’s Land presents violence free of apologia and Grand Guignol. Particularly in Pearce’s murder of Travers, Auf Der Heide presents the killing in all its unvarnished shades of feeling and physical difficulty, whilst managing to avoid being too theatrically literal (dismemberments are all offscreen). There’s a confrontational, questioning quality to this film that’s all too rare to Aussie films, apart from odd examples and the better works of Rolf de Heer.
Early in the film, the convicts and their overseer travel upriver, tracing the edges of the bristling, choking landscape into which they’ll soon desperately plunge. Later interludes where the camera drifts through the mist-clogged, darkly thatched landscape, Pearce’s sonorous Gaelic epigrams suggesting the lurking psychic unease, allow Auf Der Heide to have his cake and eat it in twinning the deeply corporeal, immediate problems facing the characters and the almost cosmic hopelessness of a situation where only bestial reversion can offer survival. There’s an eerie moment later in the film in which Pearce and his last fellow survivor, Greenhill, stumble out of the forest into a grassy plain where soft rain falls. You can almost feel the psychic relief, even if it’s only temporary, before Pearce has an hallucination of Dalton’s shade, accompanied by Dalton’s “Cooee” cry, as if that’s only just echoed back to him. Earlier, Bodenham is killed when his fellows realise that he’s completely left them behind, psychically, staring distractedly into the trees, so that Mathers, after a long pause, lifts the axe and swats him on the head.
The last section of the film plays out like Treasure of the Sierra Madre stripped of all pretences of motivation other than naked survival and hate. Travers mocks Pearce, whose first actual killing is of Mathers when Mathers tries to convince him to take care of Greenhill, because Pearce committed his killing without any hypocrisy but only in recognising who the weakest member was. But Travers is bitten by a snake, and after days of helping him limp through the forest, Greenhill, having shepherded him to the point where he can’t move anymore, carefully leaves the axe propped for Pearce to take up to finish him off. But Pearce isn’t in the least bit merciful to Travers after his mockery, and with the words, “Your soul to the Devil!”, rather than quickly kill him, chokes him to death with the axe-head. Travers and Pearce then have nothing to do except wait for the time when one will kill the other. Pearce fools Travers into showing his hand first, and when Travers awakens the next morning with Pearce standing over him, he can only wait for the blow to fall and then eventually demand, “Get on with it.” Pearce’s final pronouncement on the subject, that he sees God as dancing over humans with an axe, is the end of his progression back into a heart of darkness as he chew on Greenhills’s flesh. Auf Der Heide smartly ends the film there, as there’s nothing more to be said apart from a written postscript that tells of Pearce’s recapture, the disbelief of his confession by the authorities, and the bleak postscript in which he escaped again and needlessly killed another convict in order to eat him.
The juxtaposition of cancer-like neurosis blooming in the primordial forest and intense mortal and spiritual straits is a contrast more familiar from classic New Zealand than Australian cinema (Utu, Vigil, The Piano), though Van Diemen’s Land certainly expands the contemplation of the fearsome Aussie landscape seen in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. That Auf Der Heide’s debts are apparent and yet that his film still never feels laboured is an admirable achievement, and whilst Van Diemen’s Land would undoubtedly be a slightly too tough and taciturn experience for many audiences, it is purposefully so. In fact it’s as marvellously coherent, in the fullest sense of that word, as any Australian film I’ve seen in at least the past two decades, all the more admirable for choosing its firm focus and then taking no short cuts. It is, of course, inherent in the story, but Auf Der Heide nonetheless manages to communicate the way in which landscape and occurrence are linked in a much more profound way than, say, Philip Noyce’s similarly odyssean Rabbit-Proof Fence. Peculiarly enough for a film made by an actor, there’s an incredible avoidance of rhetorical showboating and anything but the most necessary emoting and semaphoring of internal meaning, making the collective acting all the more impressive. More than any other recent work I’ve seen, Van Diemen’s Land suggests the recent upturn in Australian cinematic culture might be more than skin deep.
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Director/Screenwriter: Stuart Beattie
By Roderick Heath
Aussies love action movies, but Aussies don’t make action movies, or at least, have barely tried since the heyday of George Miller’s Mad Max films and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s tacky Ozploitation classics. Or, if they want to, they go to Hollywood. Some think that’s a result of the generally low budgets of Aussie films, others that it’s a conspiracy by the status-obsessed haute bourgeois masters of the government funding bodies with disdain for the popular audience, or because the generally abysmal run of genre films financed by the FFC during the ’80s and early ‘90s—most of which barely saw release—proved that sort of thing a blind alley. All three arguments have their accurate points. Either way, in the past few years, Aussie cinema’s been beset by turgid, plotless, middlebrow family dramas about teenagers coming to terms with their Lebanese heritage and trying to forget about their schizophrenic brothers long enough to lose their virginity with the hot shiksa down the street. That or the gruesome spectacle that is the mangled corpse of our comedy tradition, flayed to death by incompetent hacks.
I’m writing with a touch of tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, of course, but Aussie cinema has faced a real problem in recent years, stretching over a chasm between hand-crafted prestige pieces and the dynamics of a real, sustained industry: when I talk to other people my age and younger, most have little real affection for local cinema, because it bores them. Tomorrow, When the War Began is an attempt to rectify that situation, with director and writer Stuart Beattie, Sydney-born but with a long track record of big-scale Hollywood hits to his writing credits, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Collateral (2004), taking the reins for an adaptation of the popular series of young adult novels by John Marsden. (The first novel in the series was published in 1993, when I was 14, but that was the same year I was working my way through War and Peace, so no, I never did read it.) Beattie also contributed to the last stab at an Aussie blockbuster, Baz Luhrmann’s truly terrible Australia (2008), but at the very least, Tomorrow is a significant advance on that.
Tomorrow, When the War Began depicts a group of young friends from a rural Australian town called Wirrawee who venture deep into the bush for a camping holiday. They’re a good-looking collection of stereotypes: tough farm-girl Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey); her best friend Corrie McKenzie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), who’s high on love with cricket-playing golden boy Kevin Holmes (Lincoln Lewis); good-natured, mischief-making rebel Homer Yannos (Deniz Akdeniz); high-class, drop-dead-gorgeous but secretly insecure Fiona “Fi” Maxwell (Phoebe Tonkin); goody-two-shoes Christian Robyn Mathers (Ashleigh Cummings); and Lee Takkan (Chris Pang), introverted, piano-playing son of local Chinese restaurateurs, whom Ellie evasively fancies. They venture into an area of bushland known as “Hell” because of its inaccessibility, and find an idyllic waterhole they adopt as a private paradise. Whilst camped out, they are awakened by the odd spectacle of dozens of military aircraft flying overhead.
When they return to civilisation a couple of days later, they find all the outlying farms around Wirrawee have been deserted, and, venturing closer to town, discover that all the locals have been rounded up and placed in a concentration camp located in the main showground by an invading army of what seems to be a coalition of Asian nations. Initially unnerved and taking time to adjust to new imperatives, soon enough, the kids prove they’re all right, particularly the quick-witted natural warrior Ellie and the strategic-minded Homer, discovering their capacity to kill enemy soldiers and improvise effectively when in dire straits. Picking up another member in the form of rambling stoner Chris Lang (Andy Ryan), they retreat back into Hell, but venture out again to attempt a meaningful bit of guerrilla warfare. Wirrawee adjoins one of the major harbours the enemy are utilising to funnel their convoys inland, and so destroying the only road bridge that accesses the harbour is an obvious way to slow the invasion.
The similarity of the basic story to John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) has been much remarked upon, though, of course, it’s a type of story with very, very long roots, back to Xenophon, and there’s no sign of Milius’s rugged poeticism and nativist chest-thumping (more’s the pity, perhaps). As young adult fare, the story is inspired, tapping into irresistible fantasies not merely of adventure and upturned norms that appeal to the anarchic energy of teenagers, but with the notion that within us lurks a latent potential for heroism, and particularly in the socially malformed, whose quirks may in fact be frustrated potential. Simultaneously, the story echoes deep aspects of Australian social mythology: the ANZAC legend of the good-natured local lads who step up when the time is right and commit fearlessly to war. Marsden retrofitted that legend to absorb a gallery of new-age ideals: girls and boys of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities constitute this new ANZAC force, and they perform a lot of soul-searching in their downtime about what exactly they’re doing to themselves as well as to their enemy. The story emphasis is more on teamwork than on exceptionalism.
As a straightforward, entertaining action flick for a broad, young audience, Tomorrow, When the War Began is a solid success: it certainly manages to tell a coherent, tense story with drama and strong production values, and without patronising its viewers too much. Beattie’s filmmaking, whilst not distinctive, is extremely slick, and his staging of a set-piece chase through the ruined streets of Wirrawee in which Ellie and Robyn try to ferry a wounded Lee to safety utilising a garbage truck as an armoured personnel carrier, with enemy soldiers in pursuit, offers quality thrills and spills. Beattie’s success is perhaps owing to his mastery of the rhythms of Hollywood storytelling, but his actual writing is mostly merely serviceable. Whilst some the dialogue is poor and the characters revolve around shallowly conceived traits, they’re acceptably stylised portraits of modern Aussie youth, melding argot learnt from TV and the internet with more local parochialisms. The cast, whilst unpolished, is generally effective, if not sporting any obvious stand-outs in charisma and acting cunning: they fulfill their one-dimensional roles as well as need be. An appearance by old warhorse Colin Friels as the town’s grumpy dentist who comes out of hiding to act as battlefield surgeon to Lee before disappearing again, provides exactly the right sort of bracing, no-nonsense energy for a brief moment.
The adaptation goes through the motions of some basic high-school-level ethical and moral inquiries, with Robyn particularly as a pacifistic Christian initially decrying the violence the others are quickly adapting to. The human cost of what warfare entails is presented as a clear issue, giving it a vaguely thoughtful edge, though it’s not to be confused with something philosophical or resonant. There’s potential in the friction between what the film celebrates in its characters, their loyalties, quirks, playfulness, and values, and the gradually necessary deadening of those qualities, which often distract them near-fatally, in the exigencies of war. However, the film finally shies away from in order to avoid spoiling its rah-rah positivism and bothering the audience to think too much. The film’s most curious touch comes when Ellie glances at a mural on the wall of one of the town shops, depicting the arrival of white settlers in Australia, and zeroes in on the Aboriginal figures in the background. The idea that soon all Aussies will face the same problem as the first Australians in contending with invasion and oppression is both suggestive and yet confirms a cop-out, considering the shallow patriotism the film proffers—the invasion comes shortly after Australia Day, and the pristine evocation of a small-town idyll is cutesy to the max—and the lack of any sort of follow-through on the notion. Dialogue conveying the YA themes (“People stick labels on things, until they can’t really see them,” Lee pronounces, and I vomit) results in some very sticky patches that have the opposite effect to that intended, for I wondered why people weren’t killing each other.
Efforts to invest the film with humour, such as Homer’s susceptibility to slapstick accidents, like when he’s devastated by a blind-side tackle when distracted by the sight of Fi stripping down to a bikini during a friendly footy match, are likewise more than a bit clichéd and heavy-handed. Another problem is perhaps easy to overemphasise. In Marsden’s novel, the invaders’ nationalities were left purposefully vague; deciding that they’ll be Asian brings up the spectre of the reactionary flipside to the ANZAC myth, the perpetual paranoia about being swamped, forcibly or otherwise, by the Yellow Peril is one that’s never really entirely faded in the national psyche (evinced as asylum seekers have become the targets of grossly excessive interest recent federal elections). The motives of the invading coalition are only described in one radio broadcast—they want to exploit Australia’s wealth of space and natural resources. Whilst Beattie’s choice in this regard is logical and perhaps timely, with the general geopolitical mood over China’s emerging preeminence and what this means for Australia’s place in Asia, his efforts to keep his enemy as relatively faceless and undescribed as possible don’t really deal with the problem. As I’ve said, this can be overemphasised, but when exploiting populist fantasies, you do have to be careful which populist fantasies you’re engaging.
Also, whilst it’s understandable that the film, in seeking that general audience, not get too caught up in grinding realism, I nonetheless kept blanching at the glib portrayal of guerrilla warfare. You will rarely have seen such a bland, bloodless vision of war before, and rarely one fought by such good-looking people. The one moment of truly sharp violence, when Ellie sees one uppity man get shot in the head with callous efficiency by an officer on the showground concentration camp, is contextualising—everything that follows is, essentially, in reaction to and avoidance of this sort of thuggery. But Beattie offers some cheapening shortcuts through the difficulties of, say, transporting wounded Lee through the thick bush back to the camp in Hell, and I began to wonder, for all the rhetoric attempting to encompass humanistic concerns, if this vision of war looks a bit too much like a really fun game. Perhaps the film’s most compelling, and yet subtly facile, scene is when an outraged Ellie, finding that Chris has fallen asleep whilst on watch, threatens to shoot him for dereliction of duty—as was historic practice—to his stark terror, whilst the others watch appalled. That moment results in all of them questioning just exactly what they owe each other, and yet the fact remains that the failure here is as much one of leadership as of soldiering—Ellie should not have put the half-toasted Chris on such duty, and her bullying reaction is terrible captaining.
Nor is the context presented with truly convincing detail. The enemies’ pursuing all-terrain vehicles look like beach buggies with machine guns attached, an odd kind of unspecific and unconvincing military hardware that makes the battle seem more like a glorified joyride. And the perpetual problem that all enemy armies face in the movies, the amazingly bad aim of their soldiers, is especially marked. I kept wondering how these young folk—Ellie and Homer are the only ones familiar with guns, that is, bolt-action rifles—kept managing to cock and fire off machine guns without any prior experience or jamming problems. Anyone who’s read or seen the film of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which Marsden’s novel may have taken as a partial model, will have a sense of the gruelling necessities in trying to demolish a strategic bridge with partisan operatives, and this film’s riposte—a plan involving using cattle to drive the guarding soldiers off the bridge, and a petrol tanker as a giant Molotov cocktail—is fun, but hard to take seriously and sits flimsily in the memory. These are aspects that contribute to my final impression of a movie that’s entertaining enough while it lasts but that represents a finally facile and possibly even wrong-headed vision of warfare and will be almost completely forgotten after a couple of months. In that regard Tomorrow is a less-than-ideal revival of the Aussie action film that I doubt anyone will still adore as they do Mad Max 2 in 30 years. Nonetheless, it’s definitely hit home with audiences, proving so far the biggest purely home-grown success in over 20 years, and as an hour and a half of diverting flash, it’s still a refreshing change. l
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Director: George Ogilvie
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Shiralee” is the Australian term for the bundle of worldly possessions carried by itinerant workers famously known from the unofficial anthem of Australia, “Waltzing Matilda,” as swagmen. In this television adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s classic book, the infrequent voiceover narrator calls a shiralee a burden, and reckons that the swagman at the heart of the story, Macauley (Bryan Brown), has two of them—his bundle and his daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart). How a tough guy like Macauley ended up dragging his 9-year-old daughter through the Australian bush, sleeping around a campfire and walking miles in the harsh sun, is only part of the story. This wonderful family film creates a time and place you can practically taste and shows how the bond between a parent and child can dissolve even the most stoically borne disappointments and open up possibilities abandoned long ago.
The film flashes back to 1939, when Macauley, the product of an Adelaide orphanage, has left city life behind him and struck off for the hinterlands. He enters a general store and asks for clothing suitable for hard travel. The shopkeeper asks if he’s going on horseback or by foot, and when told foot, slaps down a sturdy pair of walking shoes. “Socks or no?” “Socks,” answers Macauley. “City boy,” the shopkeeper surmises. Macauley eventually pitches up in Eucla, Western Australia, just across the South Australia border, where he lands a job as an apprentice butcher to Thaddeus (Simon Chilvers) and is immediately smitten with Thad’s daughter Lily (Noni Hazlehurst). She returns his affections, much to the annoyance of her current beau Tony (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). He arranges for Lily to think Macauley spent the night with another woman, and when Macauley finds out, he confronts Tony, only to be beaten unconscious, doused with liquor, and dumped in Thad’s ransacked butcher shop. Drawing his own conclusions from the evidence, Thad puts the unconscious Macauley on a train out of Eucla.
Skipping past World War II, the film takes us to 1946. Macauley is working for a traveling carnival as the resident boxer who takes on locals who hope to beat him and win a cash prize. He’s content enough with his carney family until he runs into a man he used to know in Eucla and is introduced to the man’s wife—Lily. Still in love with her, he disobeys orders to let his next local contender win the bout and takes all his hurt and anger out on the hapless bloke. That evening, he informs the carneys that he and Marge (Lorna Lesley), a young barker on the carnival midway, are getting married. The carnival owners warn him about making such a rash match, but he says that the only woman he wanted to marry is already married and reckons that he and Marge can make a go of it.
The film moves forward to 1953, and a small apartment in Adelaide, where Buster watches her mother Marge apply lipstick in preparation for a date. To keep Buster quiet, Marge doses her milk with some liquor. Unfortunately for Marge, Macauley picks that night to come home from his work at rural farms and sheep stations and finds her in flagrante delicto with a town councilman. After breaking the man’s jaw and ribs and smelling liquor on Buster’s breath, he throws the money he made at Marge and walks out with Buster tucked under his arm. So begins his adventure as a single dad.
Macauley is a sun-scorched and solitary man who likes to stay on the move and avoid personal ties. Buster is a typical child who squeals with delight at finding a caterpillar, complains of hunger, runs almost to tripping to keep pace with her hard-stepping father, and worms her way into his heart and ours almost effortlessly. Rebecca Smart is a very natural, appealing young actress whose initial cries for her mother (comforted by an elderly woman on the train she and Macaulay are taking back to the bush) give way to a dogged devotion to her father. He allows her to keep a giraffe plush toy a friend has given her as long as she carries it herself, and it is through “Gooby” that Buster expresses her feelings to her skittish dad and anyone else who is paying attention.
The relationship between father and daughter is somewhat lopsided. Buster falls into the rhythms of Macauley’s life and forms her attachment easily. But Mac comes to love Buster through admiration at her determination and abilities, not through some magical, idealized bond. When she takes a hatchet to chop a piece of wood for their campfire, rather than pull the tool away from her in fear, he places the branch so she will be able to strike it more effectively. A look of pride rises to his face at what a tough and resourceful person she is. It’s so refreshing to see a child treated as an actual person instead of an appendage or a porcelain doll in need of constant protection.
Macauley and a now-widowed Lily meet again, still in love but separated by fear, and Mac reluctantly goes to work for her shearing sheep. Ogilvie’s camera lingers over the shearer quarters and takes its time showing the shearing process, breathing life into the work that has filled Mac’s life. When Lily intervenes when Buster comes down with a bad case of the flu, Mac yells that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to raise his kid and sweats the flu out of her during an anxious night. Sadly, he storms off Lily’s farm without realizing that he does, indeed, need help being a parent. When Marge comes back on the scene and threatens his custody of Buster, his love has grown to the point where he is willing to meet Buster and Lily halfway and give up his solitary—and selfish—existence.
The small-town South Australia locations where Ogilvie shoots probably still have buildings that date back to at least 1939; adding some period clothing, sundries, and autos locates the characters over time but doesn’t take away appreciably from the timeless quality of this rural existence. A square dance in the 1939 section is shown at length as a joyous event that celebrates the sense of community among the bush towns; even something as ordinary as Thad’s death makes all the local newspapers, and the bush “telegraph” spreads the word of a crisis Buster and Mac face. Mac may be a loner, but he’s far from alone. But Aboriginals are absent save for one who travels with the carnival, and the look he gets from the locals suggests he is a highly unusual and not altogether welcome sight.
Bryan Brown is a yeoman actor with a somewhat limited range, but he is perfectly cast as Macauley. Handsome and rugged, he can project pleasure with a smile or clamp down his emotions with the utmost restraint. His growing relationship with Buster is believable and comes to a climax of emotional release that is very moving and realistic. The supporting cast is terrific, including Lorna Lesley, who plays a spurned and bitter wife with a pathetic intensity, and Simon Chilvers, who is decent, understated, and commanding of respect. Even the somewhat melodramatic ending feels grounded in reality and elicits emotions from us that the rest of the film has earned. The Shiralee is must viewing for anyone who values family films with life and depth.
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Director: Peter Weir
By Roderick Heath
It was easy as a young Australian movie fan to hate Picnic at Hanging Rock, so culturally ubiquitous—quoted in advertising and satirised on television and constantly cited in best-of lists. Thanks to its unassailable status as the internationally successful flagship film of the Aussie New Wave of the 1970s, with its images of white-clad young ladies climbing the phallic reaches of the eponymous outcrop, it was often hard to see the movie for the stills. Picnic at Hanging Rock, at the time of its release, and still today, was a challenge and a contradiction, a deliberate, purposeful inversion of the sweaty, masculine obsessions of Australian’s pop culture of the period and the insistently literal precincts of our national artistic temperament.
A certain archness was certainly detectable in Peter Weir’s handling of his adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, with Weir’s determination to be ambiguous, moody, and classy so thorough as to risk pretension. In 1998, Weir sparked some amusement by releasing a director’s cut that, departing from the usual result of adding sloppy footage better left on the editing room floor, actually made his film somewhat shorter. This editing considerably strengthens a film that was already an effectively eerie and suggestive piece of work. The wonder of Hanging Rock is that it conjures, without explicating, a firm sense of its thematic imperatives, lurking dark and dangerous like rocks under a placid lake surface. And, indeed, that is exactly what the story is about, the thin, tense membrane that is civilisation stretched over primordial truths and vulnerable, at the slightest violation, to total disruption.
Hanging Rock splits into three distinct parts. In the first, the girls attending Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies in rural Victoria take a day’s sojourn to Hanging Rock, a volcanic flume more than 500 feet high and a million years old, says their escorting teacher, the mathematics tutor Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) in rapt, almost worshipful terms. Her fellow escort is the French mistress, Mlle. De Poitiers (Helen Morse), and senior amongst their charges are Miranda St. Clare (Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion Quade (Jane Vallis), and Irma Leopold (Karen Robson). Meanwhile, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) remains at the school to deal out correction to Sara Waybourne (Margaret Nelson), an orphan girl who’s utterly besotted with the flaxen-haired, angelic-faced Miranda, a figure of general admiration amongst the girls. At Hanging Rock, the girls and their teachers lounge lazily in the sun, with another luncheon party close at hand, that of Colonel and Mrs. Fitzhubert (Peter Collingwood and Olga Dickie) and their visiting English nephew, Michael (Dominic Guard), who, in spite of his well-bred reserve, enjoys the company of their coarse, but good-natured coachman, Albert Crundall (John Jarrat).
Miranda, Marion, Irma, and a fourth girl, the chubby, shrill, foolish Edith Horton (Christine Schuler), decide to climb the rock. They pass by Michael and Albert, who desire them in their disparate fashions. As the four girls near the pinnacle of the rock, a strange daze seems to overcome them and draw them on, except for Edith, who freaks out and runs screaming back to the picnic. It soon becomes apparent that Miss McCraw has vanished, too, and Edith reports having seen her marching along the path stripped down to her pantaloons. Police searches turn up nothing.
In the central third of the film, Michael, haunted by Miranda’s face, convinces a reluctant Albert to help him conduct a new search, and Michael stays alone overnight on the rock. When Albert comes back for him the next day, he finds Michael distraught and disheveled, clutching a piece of a dress that proves to belong to Irma, who’s lying bruised and unconscious a short distance away. She and Michael, having braved the mysterious barriers the rock has thrown up, recover and are briefly, intensely linked by the haunting loss of the others, but Irma cannot remember what happened, and both soon go on their separate journeys back to Europe. In the final third, Mrs. Appleyard, consumed with repressed self-pity and frustration as the events and her staff’s desertion hurt her school’s reputation and income, makes Sara her sacrificial lamb. She resolves to send Sara back to the orphanage when her guardian fails to pay his fees on time. Sara commits suicide by hurling herself from the school roof, an act Mrs. Appleyard soon replicates from the heights of Hanging Rock.
The drama commences on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a date that’s hardly accidental, as the girls’ burgeoning sexuality intermingles with a moony, romantic longing they express in waking up to their valentine cards imprinted with love poetry. The ranked girls strap each other into their corsets in scenes photographed and acted with an air of naïf Victorian sentimentality over an intense, adolescent, almost asexual variety of romantic longing, whilst portraying the effort required to maintain that image of perfection. Miranda is the purest avatar of this stylised version of femininity, declared to be a “Botticelli angel” by De Poitiers. Lindsay’s positioning of this drama then confirms that not only is her story a metaphor for nature overpowering temporal concepts of innocence, but also signals the death of those idealised Victorian images at the commencement of a rowdier century. The narrative then becomes a metaphor for the shattering of a social idyll, whilst revolving around elements directly out of fairy tales: the girls disappear within the earth as in The Pied Piper myth, whilst Albert’s following Michael’s trail of notepaper evokes Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, and Mrs. Appleyard seems very much like the wicked stepmother of many a Grimm tale.
Weir defines the women as pinioned into immobility by the social custom. When the picnickers reach the rock, Weir conjures images of the girls and their two teachers sitting in artfully arrayed compositions, sprawled in the heat with doll-like prettiness: they’re not allowed to take their gloves off until they’ve passed through the town, and so intensive is their division from the everyday world that they can’t even approach the Fitzhuberts’ party. The endangered quartet’s embarkation up the rock takes on the air of restless motion, searching with spiritual intensity for some act of realisation: whilst they seem to be drawn on by a force outside themselves, it is nonetheless mobilising. The three “chosen” girls who ignore Edith and proceed on the final march into rock’s crescent have all removed their stockings and shoes (McCray, who mysteriously follows, removes her dress entirely), taking on the look of maidens about to engage in mystic rites: McCray, although seemingly distinct from the girls in age and bearing, is probably also a virgin, and her fascination with scientific signifiers—she’s seen reading a book on geometry—both channels and conceals her intense awareness of the rock’s nature. Later, Irma is found disturbingly lacking her corset, but it’s repeatedly noted that she has remained “intact.”
Such is the swooning formal mastery of the film’s first half-hour—with its lilting Gheorghe Zamfir panpipe theme, rumbling, eerie sound effects, and peering camera evoking the primal threat inherent in the rock and pregnant with approaching, mysterious calamity—that almost anything that follows can be expected to be rather disappointing. However, the second act is just as compelling, with a compulsive, swashbuckling zest that’s a reminder that Weir would later build similar excitement with aplomb in Gallipoli (1981) and his best film to date, Master and Commander (2003). These, Weir’s finest gifts, contrast the weaker elements of the film, which betray a certain lily-livered refusal to live up to its own generic underpinnings, copying instead the set templates of “art” cinema, pinching the frieze-like visuals of Last Year at Marienbad, the instantly nostalgic, haunting last shot of The 400 Blows (which Weir would recycle again in Gallipoli), and the unresolved, flailing narratives of Antonioni, transposed to an Australian setting. This worked well enough to sell it at Cannes, but it only reproduces rather than subverts the same pattern that Weir’s eye perceives so clearly—the incongruity of the transplanted English proprieties of the school, with its Edwardian architectural pretences, and the lifestyle of its inhabitants in an altogether harsher, less forgiving Australian environment.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, although free of clear manifestations of violence except in comprehending Sara’s mangled body after her suicide, is still demonstrably a horror film, and it came along when other genre directors were toying with similar levels of narrative ambiguity (see my recent comments on Black Christmas) and also very different manifestations of rampaging irrationality assaulting sunny holidayers in films like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Spielberg’s Jaws, and Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (a title that might have suited this film just as well). It also accords, in muted and unconventional terms, with the slippery sensuousness of retro-feminine glamour in films like those of Jesus Franco, Harry Kuemel, and Jean Rollin, or, from the trashiest end of the spectrum, Narcisco Serrador’s La Residencia, likewise set in a period girls’ boarding school, and Weir was much-praised for not giving in to some of the tempting exploitative aspects of that sort of film. Hanging Rock’s template is mercilessly mainstream and curiously worshipful of the qualities it contends were exhausted and contradictory: it preserves the sentimental in visual aspic.
In some ways Weir’s film is also a steampunk variation on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, revolving around similarly ambiguous phenomena that telegraph humanity’s tenuous place in the universe and false veneers of civilisation crumbling before that terrifying truth. Of course, the story can be theoretically explained in literal terms—the girls may have fallen victim to an accident or to an assaulting interloper, but oddly enough, most readings still lead back to the same point. Miranda, Irma, and Marion, in their desire to learn something immutable and venture beyond the limits of their frail civilisation, place themselves in the way of violent natural forces. Weir knowingly pictures the phallic reaches and vaginal portals of the rock: the girls disappear within one such hole, the mouth of which Michael later struggles, in desperate physical effort, to reach. Sara’s crush on Miranda seems more like adolescent hero-worship than genuine, Sapphic desire that would more work more congruously with the themes of love and carnality.
Problematically, the screenplay and visualisation fall back on some stock figures to invoke the oppositions that riddle its structure. Mrs. Appleyard’s stony, self-destructive use of Sara as cannon fodder in her war to keep the school afloat anticipates the more literal concept of Britain using Australian soldiers in Gallipoli. Edith’s plump, whiny irritation far too obviously offsets the other girls’ blooming, beatific perfection as an image of vulgarity leeching off beauty: if the film was true to its pagan proclivities, rather than honouring Victorian sentimentalism, Edith would look like the more appropriate earth mother avatar. Edward and Albert likewise contrast each other a little too neatly in versions of masculinity: Edward, stiff and very English but also proper and brave like a knight of romantic fiction, and Albert the drawling, realistic, honest Aussie to the marrow. Tellingly, Albert and Sara are actually brother and sister, having both been brought up in the orphanage together but separated: their alienation from each other actualises the enforced, unnatural distance between women and men that is the story’s motif. Irma seems to be given up by the rock for not being blonde, as a consolation prize for Michael’s ardent bravery. The film extends the obviousness of the Miranda/Edith split by similarly leaving De Poitiers to contrast with the remaining teacher in the school, Miss Lumley (Kirstey Child), similarly dumpy and shrill, who hysterically hides behind her piano when the girls mob Irma in frustrated outrage when she comes for a farewell visit, and straps Sara to the wall to cure her poor posture; the admirable De Poitiers, beautiful and refined, ends Irma’s abuse, slaps Edith in the face, and releases Sara.
Of course, the story is less about trying to define the indefinable than studying the repercussions of manifestations of the immutable upon the fragility of the genteel world, which, once disturbed, like the surface tension of water, disintegrates entirely. The crumbling façade of Appleyard’s world can only end in her death and the annihilation of all that seemed so solid at the outset. Weir’s trimmed-down director’s cut greatly improves the film’s final section in this regard: where there seemed to a half-hearted suggestion of romantic longing between Michael and Irma in the original version, the cleaner narrative line bears out the crack-up of the social pretences as the keynote to the conclusion: Michael remains haunted by Miranda (the repetition of the initial M which joins Michael, Miranda, Marion and McQuade is probably not coincidental) as a vision of paradise lost, whilst Albert is visited by a dream of his sister saying farewell to him at what is revealed to be the same time that she killed herself.
Weir’s maintenance of mood, for all the film’s fragile aspects, was always admirable, and he all the more efficiently suggests the fantastic by providing a rich level of tactile detail in setting, casting, and costuming, such as the hint of the slovenly that dogs the ineffectual local police sergeant Bumpher (Wyn Roberts) contrasting the fastidious perfection of Appleyard’s pompadour. Indeed, perhaps the single strongest quality of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and one that was picked up by later variations like Weir’s own The Last Wave (1977) and Colin Eggleston’s cult film Long Weekend (1978), is that it successfully defined the latent unease that has always rested beneath Australians and their sense of their own nation’s landscape and the world in general, that is, a catastrophic sense of nature and paranoia about a continent that promised so much bounty and proved to be little more than a great desert with relatively small regions of fecund earth. Weir’s vision of the landscape rejects the iconic admiration John Ford might have brought to it. Where the initial paranoia of Europeans to enter America’s forests, well-defined and remembered in works like Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, diffused eventually, Picnic at Hanging Rock describes the raw anxiety Australia’s landscape and rugged history of conquest by economic slaves and decimated indigenous peoples as having never entirely faded.
Hanging Rock is also uncommonly well-acted for an Australian film of the period, something which confirms Weir’s sheer professionalism as being more advanced than any rivals on the scene, save for Bruce Beresford, rather than his artistry, which was to prove readily applicable to Hollywood filmmaking. The film also established Weir’s regular collaborator, DP Russell Boyd, as the second god of Australian cinematographers (after Robert Krasker and before Christopher Doyle). The admirable turns range from the perfect, melancholy radiance of Lambert as Miranda, always the singular image of the film in spite of her unremarkable subsequent career, to the cast-iron intensity of Roberts and the pathos of Nelson as Sara. Guard, as Michael, is supposed to be bland, which is good because that’s all he is, but Jarrat, a familiar figure of Aussie screen and television, is great as Albert. Thirty-five years on, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains intriguing, inspiring, disconcerting, and ultimately, frustrating. l
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Director/Screenwriter: Jane Campion
By Roderick Heath
Jane Campion is a puzzle to me. She rose out of Aussie cinema in the late 1980s with something of the reputation of a firebrand and a new breed of woman director which she has never really lived up to. Her international hit The Piano (1993) was a kind of mash-up of college-level lit studies, feminist theory, and perfervid Victorian melodrama, with its half-defined metaphors for control of the female voice and the often bartered nature of erotic desire, scored through with a weird variety of emotional and sexual masochism. Those notes were something that recurred in her execrable adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), and In the Cut (2003), in all of which smart but curiously febrile ladies throw themselves at the mercy of beastly male conquerors. It seemed as if Campion’s only mode for exploring femininity was in its battles with a particularly prickly kind of masculinity, whilst never being as direct or lucidly provocative as Catherine Breillat. The cornerstone of her reputation remains, then, her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (1991). Finally, with Bright Star, about the famed poet John Keats and his amour Fanny Brawne, she goes back to English lit class and comes close to making the Twilight of poet biopics.
Bright Star begins as an intriguing and layered look at three distinctive characters: Fanny (Abbie Cornish), a dressmaker and designer who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox) and younger brother and sister Margaret and Samuel (Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster) is part of the social circle of the Dilke family. The Dilkes are renting out half of their house to two poets, Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Keats is spindly, doe-eyed, and visionary; Brown is sarcastic, stolid and jealous of Keats’ attention, aware that he’s by far the greater poet. Fanny, intelligent but uneducated, with a defensive prickliness bordering on offensive in her initial encounters with the two men, wants to understand poetry better. She purchases a copy of Keats’ poorly received first book Endymion in order to find out “if he’s an idiot.” Impressed, she makes more tentatively appealing approaches to Keats, asking him to teach her how to approach and understand the poetic process. Brown and Fanny’s encounters are punctuated by grazing, elusive cross-purposes and suspicion, but her talks with Keats are restrained, intelligent, and convivial. The penniless Keats soon falls in love with Fanny, whom he is completely incapable of marrying and taking care of in the expected style.
The film’s earliest segments, detailing the uncoiling, complex, elusive triangle of admiration and frustration between the two poets and the invasive female, are compelling and original. The idea of introducing Fanny as a transcription of a more contemporary type of woman into a period setting to constantly set Brown on edge illustrates a well-described set of appositional tensions. The masculine fellowship of Keats and Brown, Brown’s resentment of Fanny’s intrusion into it given an even keener twist by his attraction to her, and Keats’ efforts to be fair to everyone whilst dealing with his dying brother Tom (Olly Alexander) are all given their moment’s attention.
Campion’s firmly physical invocation of time and place, realised by Greg Fraser’s interesting cinematography, emphasises a Georgian England of flapping laundry, singing birds, insect trills, mud, colour-bleached woods, and freeze-dried winter forests. Scenery is absorbed with simple yet intimate vividness, as the natural setting that defines the characters’ lives and that both helps feed Keats’ imagination and wastes away his body. Campion’s feel for physical context is one of the strongest in modern cinema, and the setting, a Hampstead village still not yet annexed by the city of London, seems nearly as exotic as the stormy shores of New Zealand in The Piano. In a splendid early sequence, Fanny and Keats attend a soirée where Campion tries to define the fecundity of an era based entirely in oral and literary skills using a short, but droll turn by Samuel Roukin as John Reynolds, a friend who elegantly evokes the beauties of Keats’ work and a choral of singers spinning beauties in the shadows of the period house. Later, as the couple’s relationship blossoms, their play together is in a fashion that’s offhand, charming, and possessing the flavour of real life. The central pas de trois concludes when Brown writes Fanny a teasing valentine; when Keats hears of it, he erupts in jealous suspicion, Brown insultingly dismisses Fanny as a mere flirt and fan, and Fanny runs from both of them, grievously insulted. It is, however, only the momentary crisis that allows Fanny and Keats’ love to truly expose itself.
Unfortunately from this point on Bright Star steadily ebbs away to nothingness. The trouble with almost all biopics with a focus on such ill-fated figures is that they eventually must lurch into morbid deathbed fetishism. Campion, far from trying to sidestep the problem, embraces it like an ardent hippie girl with a poet crush determined to feel every hopeless minute of it. There are endless scenes of the heretofore intriguing Fanny weeping over an increasingly desiccated Keats coughing up blood and his friends trying, too late, to secure passage to the healthier climes of Italy. The screenplay’s fatal problem is that the conception and portrayal of Keats never develops beyond spindly, endangered, romantic victim. All the originality and detail of characterisation goes into the sparring duo of Fanny and Brown; Whishaw, who’s already cornered the market on playing bedraggled, doomed avatars of creative self-consumption, is left spouting airy poetic theory and then wasting away in despairing angelic fashion, as if he were as gossamer and ethereal a creature as the famous nightingale of his poem. In one scene, having been installed in a London flat to wait out the time before he can sail, and to spare Fanny and her family the sight of his pain, he turns up lying on the lawn, having walked all the way to berate Fanny for not coming to him.
Finally this Keats suggests less a living, or dying, man, than an idea for Fanny to fall in love with, an icon to inspire female suffering. In opposition, Schneider’s full-bodied, gratingly convincing performance is far more affecting not only because does he seem more realistic, but he also actually seems to be in the room. Of course, Bright Star is as much, or more, about Fanny, but here’s an equal, quieter failure. Fanny is introduced as a spottily-educated woman desperate to gain some intellectual traction in an almost strictly masculine field of endeavour, and Campion presents a dual-layered parallel of the difficulty Keats faces as an innovative artist in an epoch set strongly against stylistic advance (and as a poet in any era) and that faced by a woman seeking a more than merely passive relationship to both art and men. The trouble is Campion never even tries to reconcile the disparate concepts, the doomed pair of arch-romantics, the wasting troubadour and the weeping true love, and the earlier, more complex creations.
Cornish’s terrific performance is indeed the force that drags the film along, with alternations of sniping, self-promoting anxiety, her somehow forlorn efforts to prove herself in showing off the dresses she made with their too-showy adornments as her substantial riposte to the airiness of Keats’ words, and finally devastated grief. But Campion’s script pulls the rug out from under her in the second half, and her hopefully devastating final scenes lack the impact they ought to because she’s already been crying for most of the last half-hour. Nor is the film finally interesting for saying anything new about poetry or sexism in the arts: Campion flinches from the questions she raises, so that whilst her filmmaking is artful, her concepts come up empty. Compared with, say, the Julian Temple’s Pandaemonium (2000), which tackled this kind of material with less finesse but far more intellectual heft and provocative cultural theory, Bright Star looks like a witless and stilted objet d’art. l
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Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Warwick Thornton
By Roderick Heath
In its poetically sparse, yet intimately realistic first 45 minutes, Warwick Thornton’s debut feature film, which won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes this year, is an account of two indigenous youths, the incommunicative, paint-sniffing Samson (Rowan McNamara), and Delilah (Marissa Gibson), the timid helpmate of her grandmother (Mitjili Napanangka Gibson), a painter. They subsist in a tiny, outback hamlet populated mostly by other aboriginal folk. Samson is living in his empty shack of a house with his brother (Matthew Gibson), whose incessantly practising ska band constantly irritate Samson. Samson longs to play rock ‘n’ roll guitar, and listens to the lone radio channel that plays country songs. Delilah maintains her grandmother’s regimen of medication and helps her create the sprawling, native-style paintings that she sells to a local storekeeper (Peter Bartlett) to live.
Thornton is an indigenous Australian himself, and his reflexive compassion and feel for the milieu he conjures is immediately apparent, perceiving the reality that’s hard to communicate to anyone who doesn’t live it: the intense, grinding boredom and bubbling frustration of fringe dwelling. The elliptical early scenes describe daily impossibility, neither especially threatening nor offering any apparent purpose, as Samson wakes each morning, takes a long whiff of paint, and heads out to take up his brother’s guitar and strum tuneless riffs before having its snatched away. Delilah goes through the morning ritual of making her grandmother take her pills, helping her work, and buying and cooking scant groceries before retreating at night into a neighbour’s car to listen to a cassette of flamenco songs. Samson has his eye on Delilah, tossing stones at her in a huff, and writing misspelt romantic entreaties on the wall before tiring of his brother’s company and moving himself uninvited into the compound surrounding Delilah’s house. Grandmother keeps laughingly referring to him as Delilah’s “husband,” whilst the girl keeps huffily tossing Samson’s bedclothes over the fence.
Details are offered in cryptic snatches: only towards the end does it become clear that Samson’s sullen silence is motivated by a severe stutter and the fact that his father is in prison. Finally, the tenuous balance of life in the hamlet crumbles when Grandmother dies. Delilah cuts off her hair in mourning, but despite her conscientious care of her grandmother, a trio of the local elder women beat her with sticks in punishment for not doing enough. Samson, maddened, loses his temper and clobbers his brother over the head with a log before and then smashes his guitar. His brother, when he comes around, gives Samson a severe hiding, which doesn’t quell his eddying, frustrated violence. Samson finally steals a visitor’s truck, coaxes Delilah into it, and they flee to a larger town where they end up sleeping under a bridge alongside rambling alcoholic Gonzo (Scott Thornton). Samson moves on from paint to petrol, and Delilah vainly attempts to generate some cash by stealing art supplies, making her own paintings, and trying to sell them to an uninterested gallery owner and tourists.
Samson & Delilah is virtually a work of Aussie neorealism, and as a piece of visual storytelling, it is rich and absorbing. Thornton’s a truly excellent cinematographer, even if, like many contemporary Aussie directors, he consistently mistakes pretty pictures for vital cinema. It’s also the sort of film that shouldn’t be overrated: it’s not a deep, mysterious, penetrating work of art, but a minimalist melodrama in the garb of dispassionate humanism. Thornton’s story and style would probably have been better applied to a short subject rather than padded out to 100 minutes (but then, of course, no one would have seen it). The fresh and well-handled first half gives way to a second half that, whilst maintaining the stoic quiet of the early portion, still gives into more than one problem of the conscience-provoking genre—counting off potential abuses and humiliations like a checklist. Once the title characters reach town, the narrative catalogues how Delilah’s efforts to sell her paintings are rebuffed and her visit to a church cut short by the chilly attention of a pastor. Then for good measure, she’s grabbed off the street and bundled into a car to be beaten and presumably raped by a gang of Anglo boys, and then hit by a car, whilst Samson wanders on in his substance-altered dissociation.
Thornton stages the kidnapping with Samson in the foreground, completely spaced out, as Delilah is snatched away behind him. He’s so fond of this shot that he repeats it a few minutes later when Delilah is hit by a car; it becomes clear that Thornton’s run out of convincing twists to sustain his simple narrative, revealing a lack of true inspiration in creating both a work of social conscience and portraiture. He then pulls a clammy stunt in letting Samson, and the audience, think Delilah is dead, inspiring the boy to take refuge in a crippling petrol binge before she turns up, bathed in heavenly light, her leg in a brace, having gotten his brother to bring a car and pick him up. Rather than return to their old hamlet, where the same ranting elder women want now to beat up Samson for stealing the truck, Delilah takes him out to a shack on her grandmother’s tribal land to recuperate.
Thornton has no characterisation of substance to offer, and, like Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2001), presents a simplistic set of indigenous protagonists, blank canvasses onto whom any amount of indignation, empathy, and sociologically knowing interpretations can be projected. He hurts his narrative rigour with unexplained and sloppy conveniences, like how Delilah’s self-shorn locks, sliced off with a kitchen knife, come to be pruned back to comely evenness, or who provides the 4WD in which they gallivant in the final few scenes. There’s a strong reek of faux-Dickensian sentimentality in a lot of works about the indigenous experience, and Thornton doesn’t escape it entirely. Gonzo is one of those characters so beloved of filmmakers—the ranting loony who’s also the voice of wisdom and experience, singing folky protest songs to himself. Worse yet, there’s a half-baked religious allegory recurring throughout the piece, signaled first, of course, in the characters’ names and in the motif of hair-cutting that has no link of significance to the biblical tale at all. Delilah is intimidated into leaving a church in the town by a silent pastor, but Gonzo finally announces that he’s going to give up booze and camping out in favour of living with a “mob’a Christians.” Finally when the young couple retreat to their shack, Delilah hangs up a homemade cross. But Thornton isn’t Robert Bresson, the meaning of these flourishes in relation to the characters and their sense of life isn’t explicated, and so it dances perilously close to a “Jesus Saves” message. Still, he’s evenhanded, finding little more dignity and sense in the ranting tribal women’s punishments than in the frigid demeanour of sparkly suburban white civilisation.
Thornton’s film is, finally, at least far better than some other stabs at portraying contemporary indigenous life in recent years, like the awful Blackfellas (1993) and tepid Drifting Clouds (2002) (and a thankful curative for the lingering bitterness of Baz Luhrmann’s truly appalling Australia), as Thornton initially escapes the pitfalls of much of this type of filmmaking by relying as much as possible on imagery and providing scant dialogue to trip up inexperienced actors. The narrative is broadly similar to the decade’s best Australian film, Cate Shortland’s Somersault (2004), in portraying young outcasts at the mercy of both wayward personal impulses and Darwinian social mores. But unlike in Shortland’s film, its characters remain hazy, and it’s not something I’m going to let slide just because it’s about young aboriginal characters. It always seems to me, rather, that such characterisations tend to confirm the old racist clichés of indigenous peoples being simpler, less sophisticated, innocent beings, which is the sort of thing these films are supposed contradict. In this way, despite Thornton’s initially smart choices, the film ultimately doesn’t add up to anything truly affecting. Nonetheless, for its fine first half, and for the strength of Thornton’s filmmaking, Samson & Delilah stands ahead of the pack of the recent Aussie cinema. l
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Director: Baz Luhrmann
By Roderick Heath
Having been left bankrupt by the good graces of government bureaucrats, and with the last few cents in my pocket, I braved the mountain storms to go see Australia. A fine state to watch such a film in!
Baz Luhrmann’s film career has supposedly been an advertisement for manic energy and a pure passion for film that transcends the manginess of his concepts. The best sequence in his career was a single-shot study of Paul Mercurio dancing in Luhrmann’s first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992). It was a moment that rejoiced in physical grace and paid attention to how to shoot a dance scene. Since then he has betrayed no such simple understanding or poise. He moved on to make William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), two tedious assaults on the senses. Now, with $150 million of Rupert Murdoch’s money in hand, he set out to revitalise the Australian film industry. Well, that’s what the buzz before the film’s release was proposing. From the mid ’90s on, when large numbers of Aussie technicians, actors, and directors began finding substantial success and respect overseas, there has been an expectation that someday some of it was going to have to be brought home. And not just in the fashion of Cate Blanchett starring in depressing little indie films like Little Fish or Heath Ledger in Candy: no, but to try to make a big, take-on-the-world blockbuster.
Luhrmann was the man to finally attempt it.
I went to Australia, despite my dislike of Luhrmann’s oeuvre, because I felt his new movie shouldn’t have to apologise for what it is—an oversized, rollicking, self-consciously absurd spin on outback mythology. There was opportunity there to look at how far the cinema culture has come from the moronic Man from Snowy River (1982) and the other exercises in two-dimensional historicism. And yet I felt finally sickened by Australia, a film which tries far, far too hard, and proves that rather than having an ironic glint in its eye and a magician’s touch to its spectacle, it’s pure, unadorned, interminable, elephantine kitsch. Good moments peer occasionally through a morass of the insensible.
The plot, such as it is: Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, arrives in the Northern Territory in 1939 to chase down her husband, Lord Ashley, who’s become overly involved in a financially troubled cattle station named Faraway Downs. She’s taken under the wing of a rough, tough, sweaty, stubbly drover named…The Drover (Hugh Jackman), and soon finds her husband is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible. Conventional wisdom says it was Aboriginal elder and mystic King George (David Gulpilil). Actually it was her husband’s rotter of an overseer, Fletcher (David Wenham), who’s working to sell out the station to a cattle king named King Carney (Bryan Brown). Obviously a great amount of care went into thinking up the character names. The only way to save the station is to drive its herd across country to try to break Carney’s attempt to monopolise an army supply contract. And then there’s Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-caste boy resulting from Fletcher’s liaison with an Aboriginal woman, who is under constant threat of being removed and put into mission care, and who becomes mascot, and finally, spiritual saviour of the enterprise.
The first 20 minutes promise a different kind of movie to the one that Australia actually is, as Luhrmann’s wild editing matches posturing performances—Kidman, in particular, seems to be a kind of wind-up comedy doll of female snottiness—to achieve the same hyped-up, shit-hits-the-fan excess and tonal uncertainty as Moulin Rouge! From Kidman being mortified over her smalls being scattered to the four winds to being shocked at one of Jackman’s Aboriginal offsiders shooting a kangaroo, the comedy is thumpingly overstated. Luhrmann always sets his films in motion with leering caricatures and choppy, insubstantial storytelling techniques. Australia might count as a better film than the atrocious Moulin Rouge! if only because it’s actually a film. That previous movie seemed to have been conceived as a plush spectacle until someone panicked over its lack of cool and edited it by feeding it into a leaf mulcher. Australia is, at least, not the product of panic.
Soon Australia settles into aping other narratives. It’s almost exactly the same story as the second half of Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice (in fact, his estate might consider suing), though its official inspirations are Red River, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, dashes of From Here to Eternity and The African Queen and, oh, the list goes on, and who cares! Despite having one of Oz’s top novelists (Richard Flanagan) and another good writer (Ronald Harwood) involved in the screenplay, Australia has all the dramatic integrity of a game of Monopoly. The middle hour is watchable, detailing the great cattle drive that Fletcher and his crew of nasties try to sabotage, though why an excess of CGI turns the outback into something not far from Peter Jackson’s Skull Island is beyond me. Luhrmann stages some fine sequences when he wants to, like when Nullah and his mother are threatened with drowning in a water tank, and a cattle stampede. The photography by Mandy Walker is often breathtaking in its vivid, overlarge, painterly detail. All for nought, in the end, because Luhrmann doesn’t know when to quit. There is a line between knowing enthusiasm and rampant cornball.
Much is made in articles and interviews about how Luhrmann’s father ran a movie theatre and that he’s slavishly devoted to the ideals of the communal cinema experience. And yet, I wonder if he’s ever actually watched a real epic film. It’s clear that he has no connection whatsoever to the substance of them. Luhrmann’s understanding of what they’re about seems to have been communicated through coffee table books and camp stage revues. Rhett and Scarlett were characters with emotional and sexual lives that demanded understanding and involvement: Drover and Lady Ashley are stick figures. Luhrmann certainly can’t muster a moment in this film to match the truly evocative hate-love that drove a drunken Rhett to carry Scarlett upstairs and molest her. Luhrmann has no feeling for tone of performance or integrity of story, and his love of melodrama feels tinged with contempt. Australia isn’t actually anymore honest or big-hearted than Michael Bay’s similarly kitschy Pearl Harbor (2001). Luhrmann’s at his best in the few scenes where his empty-vessel figurations that pass for characters shut up and he cuts loose with terrific visual impressions: the smoke-and-flame-ridden Darwin Bay after the climactic Japanese attack are majestic. It’s just what’s actually going on that’s the problem.
The plot of Australia runs out when the cattle drive concludes. Everything that comes after—and it goes on for more than another hour yet—is tacked on as if Luhrmann had a checklist of things he wanted to happen. Fletcher bumps off King Carney when he proves not to be a big enough bad guy in a scene that’s a total hash. Drover and Lady fall in love and shack up, but split over Nullah’s need to go walkabout with King George. But Nullah gets nabbed—part of Fletcher’s evil design—and sent off to the Melville Island mission. Scene after scene passes without any actual propulsion, and it’s a relief when the Japanese decide to attack. But that longed-for climax is a disappointment and, despite the CGI, it leans hilariously on stock footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), as if Twentieth Century Fox are still determined to squeeze some profit potential from that flop. Wenham, a good actor, tries to make his villain distinct from Luhrmann’s usual run of moustache-twirling villainy by equipping him with a long, dry Aussie drawl. He’s got exactly the same background as Drover, but no characterisation is offered to explain why they’re so different.
The finale reaches multiple apogees of pointless idiocy: staging a never-happened Japanese invasion of Melville Island for the sake of a shootout where Drover’s brother-in-law can pointlessly throw his life away; Nullah playing a pitch-perfect rendition of “Over the Rainbow” on a harmonica to alert Lady Ashley to their arrival back in Darwin; and Fletcher, in a rage, trying to shoot Nullah, only to be speared by King George with a hastily assembled spear made from copper piping. No, I’m not making this up, but I wish I were. I was irresistibly reminded of The Simpsons’ imagined alternate ending for Casablanca where Sam knocks Louis down with his piano and Ilsa parachutes to land on Hitler’s head. But Australia is not meant to be a joke. No, the swirling strings and apocalyptic smoke reveal a filmmaker straining for grandeur and achieving only wretched self-satire.
It’s not really the cast’s fault. Jackman is actually at his best playing archly masculine heroes—from his eye-catching debut as a prisoner in the TV show Corelli (1995), to becoming one of the bright sparks of the X-Men films and the only watchable element of Stephen Summers’ Van Helsing (2004). He hits the screen swinging in Australia, momentarily promising an antipodean Indiana Jones. But the script gives him very little to do. He successfully resists Luhrmann’s efforts to turn him into another lurching mannequin with an easy charm and plainness of purpose. The real climax comes when he appears at a society ball, clean-shaven and dressed in a tuxedo. Luhrmann goes in for a grand close-up, and the women in the audience about me gave a communal moan of orgasm. Kidman, one of my least favourite actresses in the known universe, is surprising in that she radiates pheromones for Jackman, but her ever-studied acting style is always apparent. For his part, Walters has a kind of ease and energy on screen that’s rare in child actors.
In the end, the most actively offensive element of Australia is its affectation of historical seriousness—including solemn opening and closing titles—in dealing with the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children of mixed blood who were removed from their parents and placed into state care. After the leering caricatures of the early scenes, Luhrmann’s pretences to racial sensitivity and harmonising are already suspect. King George is a witch doctor, and Nullah has inherited his powers and stops first a cattle stampede and then a bullet by using The Force, or something. What exactly does this Super-Duper Magical Negro shit have to do with the Stolen Generations? Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) wasn’t really a good film—it was shallow and reduced its protagonists to simplistic moppets to ensure our concern—but at least it wasn’t this. Far from representing how far we’ve come, this film indicates that we haven’t come any distance at all.
I know people who are descended from great Top End cattle barons and Aboriginal elders. Any of their stories deserve to be told, for real. This film is called Australia, and it involves an important episode in our history, but in the end, it’s all nothing but a prop for Luhrmann’s ego. Australia could be the worst film of the year, but I might not speak for the majority. After all, I felt the same about Moulin Rouge!, and it gained eight Oscar nominations and made millions at the box office. l
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Director: Michael James Rowland
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The United States isn’t the only country with its panties in a bunch about immigrants, legal or otherwise. Over the last 10–15 years, Australia’s policies with regard to immigrants have slipped from relatively open to fairly hostile. While the politics of the country today seem to be favoring a return to a more liberal approach to immigration, there is still much resistance.
Lucky Miles was made as a kind of wake-up call to Australia. Rowland deliberately sets most of the action in the year 1990 to help Australians recall that it wasn’t so long ago when asylum seekers and boat people were dealt with in a more balanced way. Far from being a liberal polemic, however, Lucky Miles is a rich and entertaining film that tellingly won the Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Sydney Film Festival.
The film is based on real-life accounts of illegal immigrants who survived their journey to Australia in barely seaworthy boats, only to be dumped in the empty deserts on the northwest coast of the continent in the state of Western Australia. The film begins, however, in Cambodia in 1972, as an Australian soldier bids farewell to his Khmer lover. He gives her a business card and tells her to call the number if her family gives her a hard time. He also promises to return in a few weeks.
Flash-forward to 1990 and a jerrybuilt putt-putt filled with Iraqi and Cambodian refugees and their Indonesian mules. The boat pulls up to shore. Large sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. When one of passengers questions the location of the drop-off, lead mule Muluk (Sawung Jabo) assures them that just over the top of the dunes is a road where they can catch a bus into town. Khmer refugee Arun (Kenneth Moraleda) asks if the bus goes to Perth, where his father lives. He pulls out a business card to show the address. Muluk assures him it does. While the Iraqis and Khmer celebrate their arrival in a democracy where they can claim asylum, Muluk and his crew slip away.
Naturally, there is no road, no bus, nothing at all but endless desert. The Iraqis and Khmer head in opposite directions down the beach, hoping to walk to the nearest town. The Khmer manage to find a road. They see a sign, shot through with bullet holes, that puzzles them. They also see empty beverage cans along the road. One throws a rock at a can, and all of the Khmer crouch and cover their heads as it hits the can. This is comical to watch, but reflects the reality of unexploded bombs these Khmer faced in their own country. The Khmer follow the road and find a roadhouse. As they sit drinking free refreshments at the roadhouse, the owner slips off to call the police. All the Khmer are rounded up except for Arun, who was outside filling his water jugs and who runs for his life. He’s used to police who shoot first and ask questions later.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis are having troubles of their own. Yousif (Rodney Afif) bristles at the orders given by the self-appointed leader Hussam (Majed Abbas). When the pair go to collect fire wood, Hussam pulls a knife out. Realizing that Hussam was one of Saddam Hussein’s death dealers, the people who killed his entire family, Yousif runs and falls over a cliff. Yousif brings the “sad” news back to the camp of Youif’s demise, claiming to have called out and made a thorough search. The men, convinced by his story, continue on without thinking more about it.
Yousif, scraped and stunned, survives and starts walking. He collides squarely with Arun, who is running at full speed away from the “bad town.” Arun, who has water, spares a few precious gulps for Yousif, and the men decide to join forces. Yousif wants to go back to the town, but Arun insists this would be a mistake and since he holds all the cards—the water—the men set off for Perth.
Meanwhile, back at the boat, Ramelan (Sri Sacdpraseuth), Muluk’s nephew, is playing with a cigarette lighter. He accidentally loses his grip on it and sets the boat on fire. The trio of smugglers must swim to shore. Muluk refuses to let Ramelan come with him and Abdu (Arif Hidayat), punishment for sinking the boat. Now we have several groups of illegal aliens wandering around Western Australia.
Add to the mix a trio of Army reservists who are sent to track the refugees’ whereabouts. A city mouse Aboriginal named O’Shane (Glen Shea), a country mouse Aboriginal named Tom Collins (Sean Mununggurr), and country mouse white Australian Greg Plank (Don Hany) are in pursuit after reports of the smugglers’ boat are made. The film makes droll comedy out of the fact that O’Shane is an Aboriginal who cannot track; he constantly asks Tom where the refugess have gone. The trio are a less physically abusive version of the Three Stooges whose misadventures, including dropping their Land Rover in a water hole, keep them one step behind Yousif, Arun, and forlorn and abandoned Ramelan, who joined the duo with promises to lead them to civilization.
This is a film that makes certain light of the dumb luck and misfortunes of its characters without caricaturizing them or diminishing the plight they are in. Although Arun wishes to avoid the police at all costs, they are his best hope for survival in the harsh outback. Yousif, “a fully qualified structural engineer” who was reduced to driving a cab in Iran for five years (a job Ramelan covets), seeks control at all costs. When, after splitting up in anger, the trio accidentally reunites in an abandoned shack, Yousif spends all his time trying to get a rusted, broken truck to run again. It seems hopeless, but he has a Westerner’s sense of individual responsibility and determination.
Eventually, the reservists catch up with Yousif and Ramelan in a hilarious, realistic chase sequence that has to be seen to be believed. When news of their ordeal hits Australia’s airwaves, pub dwellers near the site of their capture hand it to the little buggers for surviving so long. Arun, who was separated from Ramelan and Yousif, remains at large. He brings the picture to its inevitable denouemount through the kindness of one of those pub dwellers. The gentleness and humor sounded at the end strike the perfect note for reconciliation Rowland said he hoped to achieve with this film. This is the rare movie that will make you laugh while it makes you think. I was privileged to see its North American premiere and meet its talented director and producer.
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Director: Ray Lawrence
By Roderick Heath
Ray Lawrence reappeared on the map 16 years after his cinematic debut—the unwatchable Bliss (1985)—with the much-praised drama Lantana (2001), an Altmanesque multi-strand drama following a group of mostly middle-class Sydneysiders and what happens to their psyches and relationships following a woman’s disappearance. Lantana proved that adult drama could be a box office draw here in Australia. I found the film as insufferable as a high schooler trying to act serious and troubled in order to impress chicks; brows were furrowed, moody words were uttered, intrigue was developed, dingy colours filtered every scene, and in the end, as Bob Dylan once sang, nothing was revealed. The film put on the trappings of a dramatic thriller and proved to be a shaggy dog story. L’Avventura it was not. Antonioni’s film understood the nature and power of ambiguity—the mysteries of its plot were matched by the mysteries of its characters, whereas the dramatic situations of Lantana took the psychological acumen of a Dr. Phil episode and matched it to scenes that came across precisely as what they were—acting exercises straight off the stage.
Jindabyne also pays a nod to Altman by way of being based on the same Raymond Carver short story “So Much Water So Close To Home” that Altman used as part of the texture of Short Cuts (1993). As with Lantana, Lawrence uses a genre plot to make a domestic drama. Jindabyne is a popular resort spot in the Southern Alps, the southern end of the same mountain chain, the Great Dividing Range, I live in. Jindabyne is situated above a lake formed for the huge hydroelectric scheme built in the Snowy Mountains in the 1950s. The old town lies under the lake, a detail played for maximum symbolic value, as it was in Cate Shortland’s unusually good Somersault (2004)—submerged lives, ghosts of the past, and all that jazz.
Carver’s story, cited as a masterpiece of his minimalist style, presents a wife who recounts how her husband Stuart and his friends said they had found a girl’s corpse in the Naches River whilst on a fishing vacation, tethered it for the duration, and got down to their usual business of boozing and fly-casting. The men are infamous for this, and the wife is troubled. She later encounters a man on the road who may be just a creepy letch—or the girl’s murderer. Reports come through of the killer’s arrest. The wife says to a friend, “They have friends, these killers. You can’t tell,” indicating she thinks perhaps her husband and his friends may have been involved. However, balance seems to be restored when the wife responds to a come-on from Stuart. It’s a work whose effectiveness stems from the wife’s attempt to read her husband, and men in general, comes up a total blank, female emotiveness helpless before male taciturnity. It evokes a certain type of American male who would rather be shot than use the word “feeling” in a sentence, and how ambiguous, even menacing, such a trait can be in this circumstance.
Most Aussie males are similar, so theoretically the new locale makes a good fit. But Jindabyne can’t quite do this story, nor can it do the story it has to tell. Such a story involves a rupture in the everyday fabric, but Lawrence’s film piles on portent you could cut with a knife. Like Lantana, which visually referenced an a true crime moment in a sequence involving a roadside dummy dressed like the missing woman patterned after a real-life police stunt in looking for the killers of two teens in the 1990s, Jindabyne recalls Bradley John Murdoch’s attack on Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio.The killer, played by Chris Haywood (who, if he hasn’t been in every Aussie film ever made, it sure feels like it), shadows the highway and, in the opening, gets a young Aboriginal woman named Susan (Tatea Reilly) to pull her car over. The moment is charged, especially when Haywood screams schizophrenic ravings. For some reason, Susan sits there and waits to be murdered instead of driving off, as Lawrence’s camera flies back.
Stuart (Gabriel Byrne) is an Irish champion rally driver who has retired to a dull, overworked life running a car repair shop in Jindabyne. Surveying his greying hair, he dyes it. He has a son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), by his American wife Claire (Laura Linney), who, in a fit of postnatal depression, left Stuart with the baby for 18 months. Stuart’s mother Vanessa (Betty Lucas) also lives with them, frustrating Claire’s maternal authority. Their neighbours Carl (John Howard) and Jude (Debora Lee-Furness) have a worse pain to hide, the death of their daughter, which left them saddled with their inherently weird, budding Goth granddaughter Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro). Tom and Caylin play together, engaging in activities like trying to sacrifice their schoolmates’ pet guinea pig to dark forces. Billy (Simon Stone) works for Stuart and lives with hippie girlfriend Elissa (Alice Garner) in a campervan. Rocco (Stelios Yakimis) is married to Aboriginal schoolteacher Carmel (Leah Purcell). The four families congregate at a dinner before the four men set off on the trip that fills their dreams. We see the killer dump the girl’s body in a river; he keeps her car in a shed on his property. Stuart finds the body and freaks out; Carl twists his ankle, and, deciding they can’t do anything about it, they tether the corpse in the water where the chill will prevent it rotting, and go about their fishing.
Billy tires first of the charade, and after two days, they all hike out of the hills and phone the police. They are, of course, soon lambasted by cops, media, and family. Worst of all, the racial identity of the girl causes local Aboriginal youths to throw bricks through windows, upturn offices, and generally abuse the four men. Carmel is livid, and her marriage with Rocco seems shattered. Jude, very Aussie, is as dismissive of the event as she was with Caylin’s rodent killing. Claire is deeply affected and ashamed, very American in her desire to heal and connect; she takes up a collection to help pay for the funeral, which the family rebuffs, questioning her motives. Stuart remains incommunicative, and Claire’s nerves fray.
I’d like to say the slow burn of guilt, recrimination, and shadowy threat combusts, but really it just squelches. Claire and Stuart have a bust-up, in which Stuart admits he rejoiced in escaping his overworked life in the glory of nature for a few days. Caylin seems to be tempted to let Tom drown in another of her death experiments, but then saves him. Bill and Elissa leave for the north coast, abandoning Stuart to work alone in the garage. Claire threatens to leave Stuart, and gives the money she collected to the local pastor (Bud Tingwell). Haywood’s working at the church and follows Claire, getting her to pull off the road; he eyes her with menace but then seeming to decide she’s a bit close to home, and drives away. She goes to the Smoking Ritual, a rite held by Susan’s family and tribal folk to exorcise the hills. Stuart, Carl, and Rocco arrive on their own accord, and Stuart apologises to Susan’s father (Kevin Smith), who throws dirt in his face and spits on the ground. Stuart and Claire, nonetheless, kiss and make up. Haywood continues to sit in wait for prey on the highway.
Spurning manhunt or melodrama, Jindabyne claims to be a social, familial, and moral study; if a bogeyman really does start terrorising us, how will we act? The tacked-on racial theme seems present mainly for its topicality, and distracts from Carver’s theme of misogyny. Because we know the men didn’t kill Susan, the tension of responsibility is discharged. But it is unfair to compare constantly to Carver. Jindabyne is its own creation, distinct in purposes from Carver’s story (and also Altman’s, whose approach was a blackly humorous absurdity as the fisherman garrulously enjoyed themselves whilst regarding the body as equivalent to rubbish). Making Stuart and Claire foreigners might emphasise disconnection, but also alienates them from the crucial sense of normality, and of questioning of a cultural imperative that is urgent in the matter. Lawrence’s consistent theme is the pain that lies underneath ordinary lives, and Jindabyne is at least not as arch as Lantana, a film so obsessed with its style it felt like a lawn clipped with scissors. But Lawrence can’t resist these put-on narratives, and never seems to arrive at saying something indelible. His resolutions trail off into mutterings under his breath.
Restrained emotionalism reigns, but the closeted hysteria that is always the flipside of such behaviour (and situations) is absent. Lawrence tries to show decency essentially maintaining itself—Caylin’s decision to save Tom mirrors the men’s fronting up to their shame with Susan’s family—but the film is so afraid of the powerful events and feelings with which it want to engage it fails to fulfil itself in the most crucial way: Why should we care? The men are all far from heroic, but also not convincingly foolish or self-absorbed enough to make their actions believable. The closest of the characters to the psychological type Carver was studying is Carl, who, when Billy mentions that Elissa is bisexual, henceforth describes her as “The Lesbian” who commands him, the film’s sole acknowledgement of a kind of aggressively macho mindset, the only element of the film that hints at real meat instead of pussyfooting. But Lawrence keeps reducing this to a punchline, and Elissa plays no part in the story.
Because Lawrence shows us the men finding the body, etc., the ambiguity of the situation is almost entirely lost; we know they didn’t kill her, that they got no special thrill from it, and we’re left with one slightly strained reading of the situation. (Couldn’t one of them have walked to the top of the hill and called the cops? It would probably have ruined their weekend less; alternatively, why weren’t any of them clever enough to think, hey, why don’t we say we didn’t find it until the last day? Because then there’d be no story!) Lawrence can’t portray real sexism, racism, carelessness over the dead, bloodshed, marital strife, or anything, just more furrowed brows. Dramatically the film walks on eggshells, afraid to ruffle things up with something rude or not absorbed into its glowering mediocrity.
What especially amuses me about Jindabyne is that it owes all of its attempts to capture and hold interest by stealing the tropes of genre filmmaking, but holds itself above such disciplines of generic storytelling. Jindabyne lays on menace with a trowel and reminded me a half-dozen horror films on the way as well as self-consciously referencing Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). A couple of days before watching this film, I watched a Canadian omnibus film called The Uncanny (1977), an episode of which features an orphaned girl whose mother invested her with magical-gothic trappings. The resemblance to the Caylin-Calandria character was striking, and Lawrence uses Caylin for exactly the same kind of injection of spooky charge. She and Tom believe that the submerged village is the home of zombies, and that the adults are being infected by zombiedom, which tries to add to the moody portent but also amusingly conjures the episode of The Simpsons in which children misinterpret adults’ sexual dalliances as evidence of a conspiracy of “reverse-vampires.” A moment where Billy stands under weirdly singing power lines, presaging the upcoming discovery of the body, is a direct quote from Sidney Hayers’ In the Devil’s Garden (1971). When the men are in the bush, Lawrence has shaky POV shots from the bush, as if they’re being watched, one of the oldest stunts in the book. Haywood’s truck, his grizzled threat, and the deliberate irresolution evoke another film based on Bradley Murdoch; yes, Jindabyne is the arthouse equivalent of Wolf Creek.
Lawrence obviously thinks he’s made a troubling, incisive drama about the frailty of average human lives. In fact, all he’s really done is prove how weak-kneed his approach is compared with the attack of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, which don’t just ruffle the feathers of the family unit, but eat them alive. Jindabyne is closely related to a film like In the Bedroom (2001), a film that also curiously failed through an overly artful approach so concerned about avoiding exploitativeness that it missed something crucial about life-and-death situations. Of recent films of this type, by far the best is the French thriller Feux rouges (2004), adapted from a Georges Simenon novel, a masterpiece of personal observation and slow-cranking tension that successfully avoids generic solutions without making a show of it. l
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Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay/Music: Nick Cave
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I am not going to mince words. I am absolutely dumbfounded by the hyperinflated 86% positive rating the Rotten Tomatoes critics have given this film. It’s hard to know what The Proposition brings to the boilerplate Western tale it tells besides the novelty of the setting—1880s Australia. The only way I can account for the gushing praise it has received is its slow-motion violence that provides a pornographic thrill (even as it is unbelievably shy about sex), its Out of Africa school of gorgeous landscape cinematography, and the hero worship its screenwriter, Nick Cave, seems to inspire among star whores. I’m not immune to these seductions (except for the Nick Cave connection—I know nothing much about music), but I’m not dumb enough to be blinded by them. The Proposition is a beautiful, but nonetheless, cliché-ridden American Western rip-off that revels in its ultraviolence and slights native Australians and Aboriginals in playing out an English-Irish blood feud on the new Auld Sod.
The movie lets us know exactly what it’s about in the opening scene—several people inside a metal shack are being sprayed with bullets from outside, holes ripping through the walls, metal pinging sounds resonating from the richocets, people lying dead or dancing with fear to avoid their seemingly inevitable fate. Somewhat miraculously, the objects for which these bullets were intended—Irish expat Charles Burns (Guy Pearce) and his simpleton younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson)—escape death. They do not, however, escape capture by the English constable of the fictional Queensland town of Banyon, Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). It seems eldest brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) led a heinous raid on the Hopkins family, raping the pregnant Mrs. Hopkins and slaughtering the entire clan. It is never made clear, but it appears Captain Stanley was brought in to replace Hopkins as the chief constable. His beloved wife Martha was a good friend of Mrs. Hopkins, so Stanley is hellbent on bringing the Burnses to justice. “I will civilize this land,” is his determined motto.
Stanley knows the town would be happy swinging any of the Burnses they’ve got lying around, but he is sure that without Arthur, nothing will change. He hits upon The Proposition: Charlie has until Christmas Day, nine days away, to kill Arthur and bring his body in. If he fails, Mikey will hang. So the hysterical Mikey is flung into the Banyon lock-up, with foamy-mouthed Aussie guards doing their best to keep him pissing himself for the duration of his stay, while Charlie is set free to hunt down Arthur.
The remainder of the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether Australia is a place of beauty people don’t seem to appreciate or a hellhole that drives its residents mad. Teeming with flies that cinematographer Benoît Delhomme takes pains to show coating the backs of anyone who stays outdoors for more than a few minutes and rimming Charlie’s mouth in his sleep, this common Australian pest vanishes as the film picks up steam. Perhaps the actors objected to the sugar water plastered all over them to create this effect—or perhaps we were just being treated to a feature film version of “Fear Factor.” Aboriginals, treated with the same condescension and third-banana status in this film as Native Americans are in American Westerns, are shown savagely spearing white men, being slaughtered by them (one’s head is exploded with a Winchester in a slow-motion stomach turner), or riding alongside the English colonists like Tonto to betray their own kind. No noble savages here, but also none of their appreciation for the land.
We get poetry from Arthur as he views a spectacular sunset, but he’s a mad dingo leading a bloodthirsty gang. Another poet of the outback, Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), an English bounty hunter who hates the Irish, belies his gentle surname. Even the refined Mrs. Stanley, with her English rose garden rising from Queensland clay and her carefully transported belongings recreating an English home in the bush, is the first in line when a town leader demands that Mikey receive 100 lashes when the town learns about The Proposition Stanley made. “She was with child,” Martha justifies to her husband, who, after taking a stand to defend his prisoner, instantly gives Mikey up to the mob. The residents of Banyon are shown to be a small-minded, revenge-seeking lot who turn blankly from the whipping when blood is wrung from the whip, their lust slaked.
One feels for Captain Stanley, portrayed by the superb Ray Winstone as a tired, sad-looking man who is overwhelmed by the enormity of his task. He’s not really a very upstanding fellow, though. To keep his men from hunting down Charlie and ruining his plan, he sends them instead to hunt Aboriginals. He pistol-whips Mikey. He shoots the Burns’ homestead full of holes. He crumbles at the turn of his wife’s little finger. When the final showdown between him and Arthur Burns takes place—predictably on Christmas Day, just after Martha has said “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful”—we’ve got the Stanleys to root for, but it’s a bit half-hearted. Emily Watson, absent from screens lately, seems repressed and enigmatic as Martha—not her best turn.
Guy Pearce gives perhaps the best performance in the film. He conveys concern for Mikey and fear mixed with familial obedience for Arthur to telegraph the dilemma his character is in. Later, his loathing for Arthur’s crimes bubbles to the surface in determined outrage. Danny Huston, an actor I admire quite a bit, plays a coldly rational madman who puts family above everything—he’s Michael Corleone with a gentle brogue. Most of the supporting cast turn in versions of Huston’s Arthur, creating a very nasty, one-note film.
If you choose to view The Proposition, take it for what it is—not the “thought-provoking” masterwork some people seem to have assigned it, but an old-fashioned Western that gives us what most Westerns do—a voyeuristic orgy of violence. l
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Director: Paul Cox
9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Paul Cox, a Dutch/Australian director who Roger Ebert has long championed, has made sad nostalgia his stock and trade. Two previous films of his shown at Ebertfest, A Woman’s Tale and Innocence, look at the very old and reflect on the narrowing of their lives and the regrets that have accompanied their choices. Man of Flowers is another distinctive film from Cox that examines one man’s painful memories of his budding sexuality and his current battle in late middle age to reach beyond his cloistered, idealized, but dissatisfying existence.
Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye) is a very rich man who lives in a gated mansion filled, museum-/mausoleum-like, with fine art and flowers. He appears to leave his home rarely and only to perform a limited number of tasks. He plays the organ at the church across the street, goes to the flower market, takes walks in the park to gaze upon nude bronzes, posts letters daily to his dead mother, takes an art class, and visits his psychiatrist. Into this narrowly circumscribed existence are admitted a homespun philosopher of a postman, a clumsy maid, and most recently, a young girl named Lisa (Alyson Best) who we see in the opening scene leave her slum neighborhood, go with Charles to his home, and strip naked while an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays in the background. Her performance rouses him out of his easy chair and over to the church, where his orgasmic cacophony of organ music shakes the church walls.
Indeed, this is the only kind of voluntary orgasm Charles has ever known. Flashbacks to his childhood show his elegant mother (Hilary Kelly), a flower lover who bears a passing resemblance to Lisa, his severe father (Werner Herzog), and several sexually charged scenes in which a dour-looking young Charles (James Stratford) sees his mother naked, follows his irresistible urge to place his hand on the enormous bosom of one of his aunts, and walks closely behind another to breathe in her scent. Invariably, his explorations result in physical punishment from his father. These silent vignettes, shot in Super 8, represent dreams that help Charles guide his money-grubbing psychiatrist (Bob Ellis) in prescribing cures for his sexual inhibitions.
Lisa lives with a selfish, cocaine-addicted painter named David (Chris Haywood) who constantly pesters her for money. When she starts bringing home $100 more each Wednesday, he learns that she is stripping for Charles and starts to scheme about ways to get his hands on more. Lisa says she likes Charles, though certainly she is looking for a place to stay to get away from David. One day she shows up for their appointment with a black eye. Charles has already ceased to see her as an anonymous body upon which he can project sexual fantasies. He sees her as his little flower, crying, and “salt water is no good for flowers.”
Charles goes to David’s studio to see if he can legitimately give him money through the purchase of one of his paintings. Unfortunately for David, Charles considers his modern art coarse. Later, he admonishes Lisa that David is a much worse artist than she had led him to believe. “He can’t paint flowers.” Something else must be done to relieve Lisa of the burden of David. The film takes an unexpectedly comic turn that is as delightfully wicked as it is surprising.
Watching Charles is, at times, like watching a child. His sexual nature has been frozen in childhood. He finds sweet scents and flowers erotic. He enjoys touching bronze nudes, even tries to buy one from a very peculiar metalworker. He is advised by his psychiatrist to watch himself in the mirror and try to masturbate. He considers watching Lisa and her lesbian friend Jane (Sarah Walker) touch and kiss, out of curiosity. He’s very innocent of what intimate human contact looks like because he hasn’t seen much and never engages in it himself. Instead, his mind has turned the guilt his father made him feel into a fetish for beauty that is, nonetheless, without real human intercourse of any kind. My companions at the festival thought he was quite like the character of Chance in Being There, but I didn’t see him that way.
Charles’ innocence is not total; he is not ignorant of what sex is. If he reminded me of anyone, it was the guilt-ridden Francis from Exotica whose experience of tragedy inhibited his ability to relate normally to others. Loneliness drove both men to try to experience some contact, some warmth.
Charles, however, is a singular man among men. It is perhaps instructive to know that Lucia di Lammermoor deals with the last surviving member of a Scottish clan who lives in a lonely tower by the sea. He gains the love of a woman, the sister of his sworn enemy, and hopes to marry her to heal the rift. Alas, the plan ends in tragedy, and heaven must be the place of their union. Cox’s haunting last shot brilliantly communicates Charles’—and all men’s—essential longing. l
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Director: Peter Weir
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s been kind of a down-in-the-dumps week. The time was right for some unadulterated silliness. The hubby, who is an inveterate beach party movie buff, offered The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, but the thought of seeing such greats as Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and even Francis X. Bushman sharing a screen with Nancy Sinatra was even more depressing than the week. Spying among the hub’s collection of weirdiana a tape marked The Cars that Ate Paris, I said let’s see what’s up with that. Oh boy, there was a whole LOT up with that one!
Peter Weir has had a hit-and-miss kind of career for me, but when he made this, his second feature film, he was firing on more than four cylinders. You’re not likely to find a movie quite as quirky as this one that delivers such a potent message at the same time. An article in Pop Matters by Philip Booth says that the continued acceptance in Australia and the United States of the carnage that was the Vietnam War figured prominently in the plot of The Cars that Ate Paris.
Somewhere in backwater Australia, the city fathers of the delusionally named town of Paris have devised a scheme to fuel the town’s stagnate economy. Setting up high-beam lights on the roads through Paris, the locals blind passing drivers into wrecking their cars. The salvage operations make Paris the spare-parts capital of the area (and in a sense, Australia’s City of Lights). Any drivers and passengers who survive are subjected to medical experimentation.
Both a victim and benefactor of this town’s cottage industry is Arthur (Terry Camilleri), whose brother George is killed when their car and caravan are harvested by the, um, traffic lights. For reasons not entirely clear to me, The Mayor (John Meillon) declares that “we’re keeping him” and moves Arthur into his home to recover. Arthur is heartsick at the loss of his brother, who he believes would not have died if Arthur were driving. You see, Arthur ran over an old man only a couple of years before, and though he was acquitted of reckless homicide charges, he hasn’t been able to drive since.
Once Arthur is back on his feet, The Mayor sees to it that he receives a tour of the town and becomes integrated into the community. He is taken to the local hospital, where one of the town elders cheerfully shows off the patients in the veggie ward: “He’s a quarter-veggie. That one’s a half-veggie. I reckon your brother is more than a full veggie, since he’s dead.” Experimenter Dr. Midland (Kevin Miles) offers, “There’s a tremendous challenge out here in the country, just waiting to be picked up. This is where the really exciting work is being done.”
Following this exposure to the town “mascots,” Arthur, though exceedingly meek, makes several attempts to leave Paris. Each time, The Mayor cajoles him to stay, finally asking Arthur if he would like to be adopted as the son The Mayor never had. Although The Mayor and his wife Beth (Melissa Jafer) have two children, “They aren’t ours. They’re orphans.” Wonder how that happened. So, Arthur settles, if somewhat uneasily, into Paris. To cement Arthur’s place of honor and carry on in the grand tradition of politicians everywhere, The Mayor appoints Arthur the parking supervisor of Paris, and gives him a fancy armband to wear. While it doesn’t appear that Paris has a parking problem, Arthur, nonetheless, patrols the streets. He comes across some young blokes whose cars look like fugitives from a Mad Max movie. When he asks one of them to move his car, it appears a confrontation might occur. Instead, the lad says, “Sure. Anything to oblige.” In Paris, as in other cities, you don’t argue with City Hall or its son.
But the truce doesn’t hold. One of the owners of a tricked-up car runs through The Mayor’s yard, breaking his Aboriginal lawn jockey in two. To avenge this outrage, the offender’s car is torched right in front of him. Trouble is definitely brewing.
The night of a fancy-dress ball, The Mayor has to order Arthur to get into his costume and attend. The whole affair is pretty dismal, particularly when the entire assembly applauds the veggies, who are brought in wearing decorated bags over their heads to serve as their costumes. Outside the hall, a growling animal is heard, then another. The town’s youth have surrounded the hall with their cars and begin smashing through the walls and chasing the fleeing guests. In a scene inspired by a hundred epic movies, one brave elder lashes out at the cars, running toward them swinging a mechanic’s tool. Unlike these epic films, in which the hero invariably rises above the fray, the elder is impaled on a porcupine car.
Meanwhile, Arthur has climbed into The Mayor’s cherry ’57 Chevy and backs up several times into one of the attacking cars. The Mayor urges Arthur to finish the lad off. After he has done so, his entire face brightens. “I can drive,” he says in awe. With that, Arthur drives away from Paris. In Weir’s words, “He’s the little man, the little worm that turns.”
The Cars that Ate Paris borrows from a number of movie conventions and turns them on their side. On the horror movie side, we have zombies, but they are created through deliberate experimentation and become the equivalent of cuddly Down’s Syndrome children for the townspeople. The evil scientist is a well-respected, well-integrated member of the community. One of the quarter-veggies, let loose in town to work the high-beam lights, gets a tongue-lashing but nothing more when he shoots the town’s minister. He’s left to collect Jaguar hood ornaments, like trophy teeth from any number of war movies.
Consumerism is roundly assaulted. The film itself opens with what we learn is a cigarette ad, showing an attractive young couple driving out in their sportster, buying a painting at a charming country boutique, and then smashing their car down a ravine. The Mayor’s wife tries to comfort Arthur by showing him her mink coat—second-hand, of course, and she’s not allowed to wear it outside because The Mayor doesn’t want her to look too posh; there might be a revolt over the scoliotic backbone that supports Paris’ economy. The car culture itself is shown to be perverted and as all-consuming as the movie’s title suggests. Youth rebellion, however, doesn’t seem to be the hope for the future. If Arthur’s trading killing for driving is any indication, the next generation won’t look much better than the last, though the indefinite ending leaves room for speculation.
Nonetheless, perhaps Paris could have done worse. Instead of killing the outsiders who pass them by and take no notice, they could have turned their town into a theme park for tourists. Living in a city of 3 million people that seems to be doing just that to solve its economic woes, I can testify that it is a shameful comedown indeed. l
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Director: Peter Weir
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As the world has gotten smaller and easier to negotiate through electronic means and jet-fueled transport, would-be adventurers have had to venture further and further out of reach. Many victims of modern ennui have turned upward, crawling up Everest like a foolish band of ants to a flame; inward, looking for an inner space of boundless creativity; or outward to the stars, intrigued by the weird and wondrous forms from the postcards sent by unmanned explorers named Hubble and Voyager. Filmmakers have reflected these new frontiers, abandoning the thrilling quests of old in the Wild West, in darkest Africa, and on the high seas for the quaint relics they are.
Thus, Master and Commander: The Far Side of World was a risky venture for Twentieth Century Fox and its production partners to launch. Although Patrick O’Brian’s maritime book series upon which the film was based is very popular, its fan base doesn’t exactly approach the size and fanaticism of, say, Harry Potter loyalists. If the movie were to do well, it would have to appeal to more than the history buffs and be more than a modernized swashbuckler. It would have to create wonder.
I don’t think Master and Commander created as much wonder in as many people as it should have, but I, for one, was completely captivated, convinced, transported, and thrilled by this elegant recreation of a time and place where wonders never ceased for those who lived in it. The time was the early 1800s. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), captain of the H.M.S. Surprise is patrolling in the waters near South America for ships in Napoleon’s fleet. A blow against a French ship will be a blow for England and for the crew’s wallets when they claim the prize of the captured ship and its cargo. Sailing with Aubrey as the Surprise’s surgeon is his friend Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), doctor, amateur naturalist, and civilian. The two men play classical music together and act as each other’s confidante and adviser.
Along on this voyage is midshipman Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), an aristocrat of about 14 years of age. Aubrey takes Blakeney and his young friend, midshipman Peter Calamy (Max Benitz), under his wing in training them to be officers. Among the other assorted officers are first lieutenant Tom Pullings (James D’Arcy), veteran seaman Master Allen (Robert Pugh), and midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), who lacks the confidence and leadership for his own command.
One foggy evening, Hollom thinks he spies a ship on the horizon. Aubrey and Pullings seek the ship, but see nothing. Hollom hesitates about what he saw, and the crew stands down. Only moments later, the Surprise is fired upon and sustains casualties and damage. The chase is on after the “ghost ship” that hides in the fog, a French ship called the Acheron.
Young Blakeney took wood shrapnel in his arm during the attack and develops life-threatening gangrene that requires that he have his arm amputated. Aubrey visits him in his bunk and makes him a gift of a personally inscribed book about the exploits of Lord Nelson, the one-armed idol of every man on board and once Aubrey’s commander. Aubrey is a leader of men who also can pay individual attention to each man.
The Acheron proves a fast ship and a worthy adversary. It gets the jump on the Surprise by hiding in coves along the shore. Unable to outrun the Acheron, Aubrey creates a decoy. His crew builds a buoy with a light to mimic the stern of the Surprise. “Mr. Calamy,” he says, “You have your first command,” as he sends the midshipman out to float the buoy away from the Surprise. The Surprise then tacks away from the buoy, and all on board listen triumphantly as they hear the Acheron fire on the decoy.
The trick buys Aubrey time to make repairs at the nearby Galapagos Islands. Maturin is in hog heaven, hearing as he has of the strange life forms the Galapagos are said to contain. Blakeney mentions that he sees a lizard swimming in the water. Maturin says lizards don’t swim. Blakeney replies, “This one does.” Maturin is stunned by the discovery of a swimming iguana. He combs the island collecting specimens, one more fascinating than the next, with Blakeney and an ordinary seaman at his side. When they reach the other side of the island, Blakeney spies the Acheron hiding in a harbor. The naturalist and his charges drop their treasures and race back to Aubrey, who immediately prepares to set sail. Maturin protests that he wishes to remain on the island, particularly since Aubrey is exceeding the mandate of his orders in following after the Acheron. Aubrey rebuffs him harshly, putting his mission ahead of Maturin’s “silly” hobby. Later, he will redeem himself after Maturin is shot in a freak accident by returning the ship to the Galapagos so that the bullet can be removed safely on solid land.
Aubrey pursues the French vessel around the treacherous Cape Horn. As the icy waters and high seas batter the ship’s sails, popular Able Seaman Joe Plaice (George Innes) is sent up the mast to tie them down. When he gets into trouble, Mr. Hollom is sent up to rescue him. Hollom freezes in fear, however, and the mast breaks off with Joe clinging to it and must be cut free to prevent the ship from sinking. The crewmen hold Hollom personally responsible for Joe’s death, and their disrespect for him causes Aubrey to order the flogging of one of the men. Soon thereafter, the ship hits the doldrums, and the superstitious crew blames Hollom as bad luck personified. His loneliness and feelings of being out of place are wrenching and tragic.
Eventually, Aubrey catches the Acheron’s scent again when they come upon some merchant seamen adrift after their ship was attacked. Aubrey devises another trick that will help the Surprise move next to their quarry and pummel them with cannon fire, thus piercing the Acheron‘s state-of-the-art double-hull design with close-range fire and allowing them to board the ship and take control.
Master and Commander is a film that goes from strength to strength. Following the blueprint of authenticity that made the O’Brian books so popular, this film is a time machine. The crew is covered with the scars of battles past, including star Russell Crowe, whose mangled ear presents prominently and unvaingloriously in several scenes. The customs of the British Navy at this time are well observed, from the manner of salutes given to the officers, to the details of a flogging, to the medical practices of the time, and the fine craftsmanship of the carpenters who were always aboard to build spare parts, make repairs, and fashion objects in their idle time that collectors can’t get enough of these days. It’s odd to see such young men in such responsible positions, but to quote from another period drama, Interview with the Vampire, “Times were different them. I was a man and master of an estate.” The cast is strong, right down to the smallest of speaking roles, and make their somewhat idealized relish of service and adventure real and breathing.
Crowe is a perfect balance of humanizing camaraderie, self-assurance, and leadership. He’s a muscular actor who is at his best in muscular roles, such as Aubrey or Bud White in L. A. Confidential. Paul Bettany is an actor’s actor who disappears into every role. In this one, Maturin’s intelligence and civilian railing at military protocol seem to ooze out of every pore.
Weir creates a world both exciting and tedious, horrifying to a modern audience in its crudeness (Maturin must remove the bullet from his own shoulder in a wince-inducing scene), but modern to its inhabitants, as Aubrey admires the inventive construction of the Acheron through a model built from memory by two able seamen who saw it being constructed in an American port.
Most of all, Weir brilliantly stages battles at sea. Listen carefully to Aubrey’s plan to defeat the Acheron, then watch as every detail of his plan is put into action in the ensuing engagement. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking that pays tribute to the art of battle strategizing and execution. I’m going to quote Aubrey’s plan here. Print it off and then read it after you see the film. See if Weir doesn’t manage the whole scene exactly as planned:
Right lads, now, I know there’s not a faint heart among you, and I know you’re as anxious as I am to get into close action. But we must bring them right up beside us before we spring this trap. That will test our nerve, and discipline will count just as much as courage. The Acheron is a tough nut to crack… more than twice our guns, more than twice our numbers, and they will sell their lives dearly. Topmen, your handling of the sheets to be lubberly and un-navy like. Until the signal calls, you’re to spill the wind from our sails, this will bring us almost to a complete stop. Gun crews, you must run out and tie down in double quick time. With the rear wheels removed, you’ve gained elevation, and without recoil, there’ll be no chance for reload, so gun captains, that gives you one shot from the lardboard battery… one shot only. You’ll fire for her mainmast. Much will depend on your accuracy… however… even crippled, she will still be dangerous, like a wounded beast. Captain Howard and the marines will sweep their weather deck with swivel gun and musket fire from the tops. They’ll try and even the odds for us before we board. They mean to take us as a prize.
It isn’t easy these days to shoot a film that can make the breath quicken in excitement and a whole world of adventure come alive. Big-screen interpretations of comic book heroes and scifi aliens have, paradoxically, cramped our imaginations. I never expect to be as dazzled and delighted by a tricked-up action movie as I am by Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This film is the greatest swashbuckler of all time. l