2010s, Action-Adventure, Australian cinema, Fantasy

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Director: George Miller

By Roderick Heath

Mad Max (1979) was a weird and unexpectedly popular film made by George Miller, a young doctor who turned to filmmaking in his spare time during his residency training. Miller had already revealed an antic talent and gory sense of humour with his short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971). His first feature evidently aimed to transplant the ’70s craze for car chase movies into the Aussie landscape, a smart commercial move considering that adulation of the car was and is one of the nation’s major religious movements. Miller and his initial cowriter James McCausland went a step further than the usual run of car chase flicks pitting redneck cops against raffish criminals. Perhaps borrowing a little from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Damnation Alley (1976), and Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Miller set the film in a hazily futuristic time of a decayed social order where the roads were battlegrounds for marauders. His cops were badass neo-knights battling rampaging scum, and his hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), was that popular figure of ’70s genre cinema, the good man pushed too far by lowlifes. The film was a hit both at home and overseas, albeit after a dub job for U.S. distribution. Miller expanded the series with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which pushed the concept into the realm of myth and depicted a properly post-apocalyptic landscape, and then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film was exponentially more expensive and ambitious than the one before, and Gibson became an international star. Miller’s love of a bygone brand of big, sweeping, elemental cinema was laced with visual and thematic overtones borrowed from John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and especially Sergio Leone, whose offbeat, proto-punkish spaghetti westerns became a particular touchstone.
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The Mad Max films have been remembered with rare fondness, particularly the middle episode, for their kinetic force, their exotic creativity, and specific, instantly influential roster of ideas and images. These films were quintessential artefacts of the early days of video, providing an easy bridging point between the drive-ins and home entertainment. Imitations exploded, at first in cheap Italian knock-offs and eventually in big-budget riffs like Waterworld (1995). In their native land, the Mad Max films were admired in themselves, and considered just about the only salvageable relics of Aussie cinema’s flirtation with genre filmmaking until the reawakened interest in Ozploitation in the 2000s; indeed, there is a serious case to be made for The Road Warrior as the best film ever made Down Under. Beyond Thunderdome, an attempt to take the series upmarket and give it Spielbergian appeal, was a great-looking and thoughtful entry that nonetheless skimped terribly on action, and many felt Miller had pulled his creation’s teeth. Ever since Miller, a truly talented filmmaker, has, like George Lucas, wasted a lot of that talent trying to be a one-man film industry.
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Miller had been mooting a fourth episode since the mid-1990s, and now, finally, it has arrived with rising star Tom Hardy slotted into the lead role. Fury Road has been greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on the orgiastic by critics and fans. That’s not so surprising. The appeal of the series was always based on the outlandish and the disreputable, and the new film, armed with a blockbuster budget, has on the face of it at least the jagged, thumping appeal of a heavy-metal album in a sea of autotune pop. One unique quirk of the Mad Max series was that each episode, although linked by certain elements, represented a partial reboot rather than mere sequel to the previous one, remixing certain ideas and characterisations, thus lending itself rather neatly to recomposition 30 years down the track. Fury Road quickly reveals itself determined to a fault not to repeat the perceived mistakes of Beyond Thunderdome.
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Just how deeply Australian the Mad Max films were is necessary to note outright, most particularly their sense of the landscape as both a limitlessly boding expanse and a harsh and withholding thing where paucity dictates adaptation, and their vision of civilisation as a crude assemblage of spare parts left lying about by other cultures. Miller took the Oz-gothic vision of Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake in Fright (1971), which contemplated the ugly, unstable tone of devolved aggression that can be seen in some pockets of the continent, and gave it a purpose. He also quoted the wild, frenetic, purposefully crude inventiveness coming out of the nation’s pop cultural quarters in the late ’70s: in the weird panoply of grotesques that form the human world of Miller’s early vision lies the grubby energy welling out of grungy pub rock scenes, art schools, and the burgeoning gay and punk scenes. At the time this was cutting edge; now it’s all rather retro. Miller went to town mimicking the sweeping widescreen visions and strident, epic-sounding music associated with a brand of big movie-making that was fallow for most of the ‘70s: Miller made blockbusters on a budget. Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost $150 million, can’t argue such handmade pizzazz, and Miller had to work his fascination with creating weird little worlds and exploring their sensibilities with a near-constant barrage of thrills and spills.
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Hardy’s Max is glimpsed at the outset framed against the horizon, gazing into the distance, before stamping on a two-headed mutant lizard in an attempt to quell the semi-psychotic buzzing in his head—the voices of the people he tried and failed to save in the past, including his daughter. No time to stand around, however; Max quickly gets into his battered, old Interceptor and flees ahead of a squadron of hunter hotrods. They manage to wreck his vehicle, drag him out, and take him to the Citadel controlled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking aged warlord. Many citizens of the Citadel suffer from “half-life,” or a congenital anaemia usually accompanied by cancerous tumours that cause early death, and one half of Joe’s power rests on his ability to find strong donors to keep the others alive; the other half is control of an underground water supply. The culture of the Citadel includes his army of “War Boys,” young half-lifes kept functioning by blood donors, or “blood-bags” as they’re called, and controlled through promises of an afterlife in Valhalla if they die in combat for him. Joe also has a coterie of beautiful young woman kept as a concubines in a vault. Max is tethered, and his back is tattooed with his status as a universal donor. Before his captors can brand him, Max breaks free and nearly escapes, only to be recaptured. He’s given to one waning War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a blood-bag. Meanwhile Joe’s top “Imperator” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads men out on a supply run to the nearby cities that produce fuel oil and weapons Behind the wheel of her war-rig, an armed and armoured long-range fuel truck, Furiosa drives off the beaten path into the wastelands, stringing along her soldiers and plunging them into a battle with wasteland marauders. Joe soon realises what’s happened: Furiosa is helping the concubines escape.
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Characterising Immortan Joe as a primitive tyrant with a taste for harem flesh might be seen as Miller having a sly dig at one of the basic appeals of his creation: the possibility that future civilisation decline would return humankind to barbarism and the unrestrained indulgence of primal appetites and discourteous sexuality, a notion exploited all too enthusiastically by the not-so-different Gor novels by John Norman. Some of the ugliest moments in Miller’s first two films in the series involved the pansexual rape habits of its villains, so Miller may be issuing a mea culpa as he takes on the theme of liberating sex slaves. The storyline mildly upbraids such a fantasy landscape’s appeal in repeatedly noting the stripping away of dignity and agency, something inflicted on Max as well as the young concubines, as he spends many scenes strapped to the front of Nux’s car as he gives chase, feeding him lifeblood. Easy enough, too, to read Joe as a caricature of just about any arbiter of social control, as he keeps his War Boys’ heads screwed with religion and his populace on a leash with carefully rationed water: he warns his populace as he pours water upon them not to become addicted to it, lest they resent its general absence.
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Nux has the strongest, most interesting character arc in the film—point of fact, the only character arc. He charges into battle with fellow berserker Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), mouth spray-painted with silvery gloss to evoke the chrome-plated bumper bar of Death, desperate to live up to his creed only to be jolted out of the death-hungry obsession by his own failures. He slowly changes loyalty to the ragged team of heroes whilst Erectus becomes his personal nemesis in the pursuing armada. Hoult, usually cast as cupid-lipped young romantics, has a blast playing such a loose-screw, physical character.
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Meanwhile the coterie of pulchritudinous fugitives—heavily pregnant favourite The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), flame-locked Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—are characterised not as feyly naïve or absurdly tough, but as a pack of sarcastically articulate waifs out of their depth and yet committed to their Quixotic mission, tucked under Furiosa’s wing and doing their best to operate in the ferocity of the moment. I’m not quite sure if anything about their characterisations makes sense in context, though. They’re children of the post-apocalyptic world but say they don’t want their children to be warlords. What else are they going to be? Conceptual artists? Miller should have gone back to Kurosawa to remind himself of how characters set in worlds run by different rules should act.
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Max’s first proper glimpse of this coterie of bounteous female forms has them arrayed against the desert sand and sky in diaphanous silks and chastity belts like some particularly collectable Sports Illustrated foldout. Furiosa herself likes to shave her head and rub engine grease on her forehead as war paint, and has a mechanical left arm. Theron proves again she’s a performer of sneaky craft as she finds depth in a swiftly sketched character with real art, moving supply and convincingly from steely war face to shows of pathos and personal longing and anguish. Her Monster (2003) Oscar notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if Theron hasn’t finally found her metier here as a rudely charismatic bruiser. That Furiosa is in many ways the real protagonist of the film is Fury Road’s open secret. Max is at first frantic to the point of, yes, madness—understandable considering the indignities he suffers in the film’s opening scenes. He finally breaks free when Nux crashes his vehicle chasing Furiosa’s war-rig into a sandstorm, and his initial meeting with the cabal of females is a tense and coercive standoff, as he’s initially obsessed only with survival. Standoff turns into a three-way punch-up, as Nux, still chained to his escaped blood-bag, leaps into the fray, and Max alternates between fighting off Furiosa and stopping Nux from killing her. Max at first tries to leave them all behind, but finds the war-rig won’t go because Furiosa’s kill switches have to be cleared in an order only she knows. Furiosa convinces him to take her and the other women aboard, and, of course, uneasy partnership soon becomes unshakeable alliance.
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The basic story of Fury Road reminded me more than a little of Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (1970) with way more action, blended with a solid B-western like Charge at Feather River (1953). Miller sprinkles stirringly bizarre, funny-appalling flourishes throughout Fury Road, proving something of his old, wicked sense of humour remains. Joe has a battery farm of tubby ladies having their breast siphoned as foodstuff that Joe trades as a delicacy. The escaped concubines pause to rid themselves of their detested chastity belts, which have barbed spikes protecting them from penetration. A remote patch of bog is home to a tribe of weirdoes living on stilts. Joe’s armada comes equipped with one vehicle carrying multiple drummers and electric guitarist for mobile war music, a touch that represents Fury Road’s most inspired nod to the rock ’n roll spirit that lurked within the original series’ texture, as well as providing perhaps this entry’s keenest example of the series’ habit of melding ancient ideas with the new. If Fury Road was nothing but such moments, it might have added up to a gonzo classic of crazy-trashy inspiration. But there’s not nearly enough humour to the film, nor enough real inspiration to its running set-pieces.
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Here we get into the greater problems with this entry. The price Miller has paid to make such an inflated reboot has been to do like a lot of modern action directors and essentially turn the last act—the climactic chases from the second two original Mad Max films—and inflate them into an entire movie. The first half-hour sets a hard-charging pace the film can’t sustain but damn well tries, what with Max’s attempted escape through the labyrinth of the Citadel whilst besieged by flash-cut memories of his past failures quickly segueing into Furiosa’s escape. I was near being put off the film right from get-go: Miller over-directs to an absurd degree as he sets the film racing, starting with that annoying CGI lizard and the tumult of psychic ghosts tormenting Max that reduce the necessary reintroduction of the character to a barrage of cheesy camera effects. The very opening suggests a dialogue of intense, meditative quiet and thunderous action might begin, but instead there’s only thunder.
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Miller’s most inspired touches of world-building are steamrollered into the tar along with everything else. The illogic that’s often leaked out the edges of Miller’s world—the amount of petrol the villains wasted in The Road Warrior was about the same as what they were chasing—here returned in watching Immortan Joe piss water away on desert sands. Apparently none of his subject populace of human flotsam have thought to put in some kind of collecting basin or sink. Miller has his image of mock-beneficent tyrant’s egotism and human pathos, and goes no further in setting us up with either a social metaphor of real force or a villain of great stature. In spite of the film’s thematic evocations, it’s as simplistic on the level of metaphor as can be, and the raving about the film’s feminist angles in some quarters ignores the fact that the “hero saves evil king’s sex-slaves” plot is one of the oldest in pulp adventuring. Of course, we live in a time where crude and basic lip-service to political themes in movies is popular for painting our Rorschach sensibilities onto (see also The Hunger Games films), so Fury Road is quite on trend in that regard. For all the faults of Beyond Thunderdome and its big, shameless debts to Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker, it had a depth and a wistful poetry that completely eludes Fury Road, in moments like the haunting scene where Max is treated to a creation-myth-cum-history via a relic Viewmaster where random images from a vanished civilisation have been patched together to illustrate it. There’s a hint of this in the recurring phrase asked by the concubines, “Who killed the world?”, indicting the warmongers of the future with the warmongers of the past, but without pausing to note the irony of trying to touch on pacifistic themes whilst dancing the audience giddily into a sea of carnage.
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Once the action kicks into gear, the early battles and the finale are the strongest, but in the middle comes some well-staged but uninspired stuff, including an attempt to get the war-rig unstuck from the mud, whilst one of Joe’s allies, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), randomly and stupidly fires off his guns into murk. It begs the question: how did any of these halfwits survive the apocalypse? Miller can think up a lot of things, but not a nonviolent action set-piece for his truckers that can hold a candle to the sequence in Ice Cold in Alex (1959) where the heroes have to hand-crank their vehicle up a hill, or the bridge crossing in Sorcerer (1977).
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In spite of the film’s efforts to honour the force of the original trilogy’s realistic action sequences, here swathes of CGI still must paint the skies. Still, Miller’s respect for landscape and physical context emerges throughout. Production problems meant that Fury Road had to be shot in Namibia rather than the hallowed turf of the Aussie outback, but the vistas are just as powerfully barren and stunningly vast (if also heavily digitally tweaked), and many of the best, though relatively few, moments of the film come when Miller draws back to behold this grand arena for perpetual human foolishness. One touch that did tickle me was Miller basing some of the wasteland marauders’ vehicles on the famous spiky Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars that Ate Paris.
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Dramatically speaking, Fury Road is a near-total bust however, often reducing the honourable creed of the junk action flick to moving wallpaper of bangs and booms and crashes. They’re damn well done bangs and booms and crashes, make no mistake: Fury Road is a magnificent movie production, one that clearly demanded inspiring levels of commitment to put together. But like last year’s John Wick, which also gained many plaudits from critics I’d expect to know better, Fury Road frustrated me with the presumption that an action flick can and should just be a series of Pavlovian set-pieces. Miller has a talent for fitting vignettes of humanity into the sprawl of excess, and the ones that come are interesting, like Furiosa admitting she wants “redemption” for aiding Joe for so long, and Nux connecting with Capable, the least cynical of the escapees; Keough gives a quietly luminous performance that stands out amongst her fellows, though that might be because she actually has a proper interaction with another character. But the character reflexes are astonishingly clipped and basic. Nux changes side with barely a blink, and Max and Furiosa shift from trying to kill each other to palsy-walsy in a couple of minutes.
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The bad guys particularly suffer from this thinness. Part of the force of the first two Mad Max entries lay in the fact that Miller was willing to contemplate, horror-movielike, the dread of characters failing in their personal missions of protection and the loss of loved ones to the new barbarians, and his ability to think up cool avatars of evil. Here Miller reduces that element to backstory visualised in the worst way possible. Keays-Byrne’s velvet-voiced, charismatic, if often overripe, presence was one of the most entertaining in Aussie TV and film of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s great to see him restored to his rightful place as overlord of villains. Yet he’s completely wasted as Immortan Joe, who’s just a weak retread of Lord Humungus, lacking his real physical menace, mixed with traits from Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, and he remains a mere action figure in place of a villain. Perhaps it’s admirable we don’t get scenes of the concubines being raped or mistreated, but the film lacks basic melodramatic spurs and thus the delight in seeing evil regime churned into scrap metal. Moreover, Joe’s actual comeuppance is so clumsy and helter-skelter that I almost wondered why Miller bothered.
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Furiosa, finding her beloved childhood birthplace no longer exists and sinking to her knees to scream in fury to the desert, is supposed to register as an emotional highpoint, but doesn’t really cut it, considering the character’s had about 15 lines of dialogue and the hoped-for Eden has only ever registered before as a tossed-off McGuffin. Late in the film, Miller introduces a new set of protagonists to add to the band of heroes—the Vuvalini, a small remnant tribe of women ranging from young and dashing “Valkyrie” (Megan Gale) to aged matriarchs, including “Keeper of the Seeds” (the always wonderful Melissa Jaffer). Like so much else in the film, these ladies deserve and demand far more time to impress themselves upon us, and the notion of a pack of gun-wielding grannies on choppers is delightful, but they’re tossed into the drama moments before the big finish revs up. Thus, moments like the Valkyries’ eruption into battle don’t carry much weight: it’s just more stuff happening.
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Frankly, although the final chase sequence represents a breathless piece of cinema construction and risky filming, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the jungle chase of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which emphasised fluid lines of camera motion to better read complex action using moving vehicles as mobile platforms in a running battle. Miller tries to do the same thing here, but changes camera positions and edits the stunt work too frenetically, with no sense of rhythm for the daring and the interplay of elements to register. But perhaps the biggest void in Fury Road is Max himself. Hardy seemed on paper like perfect casting as Max redux: he’s an actor of great sensitivity who has powerful star presence and also can look convincingly tough. His performances in Warrior (2011) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) elevated both: the mordant humour as well as threat he invested in Bane has proven over time to be one of the latter film’s coups. But here he proves startlingly weak. At first he makes a stab at an Aussie brogue, but his accent skids about like slick tyres on an oily road, and he sometimes barely seems present in the movie. Trapped behind the mask he wears for much of the film, Hardy looks vaguely like some downmarket Daniel Craig clone. This isn’t entirely his fault. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect the screenplay was, like the second two Die Hard movies, one of those blockbuster imitation spec scripts that someone thought might as well be repurposed as a sequel for the model, so disposable is Max’s presence throughout much of the film. Max has been robbed of all of his mythic stature and specific gravitas.
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I have suspected one of the reasons the series lay fallow for so long was because by the end of Beyond Thunderdome , Max as a character had reached a point in stasis. For all the alarum and affray here, it’s still rather obvious that Miller is unwilling to nudge him even slightly past the pose of eternal wanderer. That’s not necessarily a problem—after all, Zatoichi clocked up 20-odd films in his rootless wanderings and remained entertaining—but Max here just never feels particularly important, vital, or distinctive. The man who “carries Mr. Death in his pocket” has become just another player in a busy landscape. What Fury Road does well is just about the only thing it does: stage fast-paced road action. Fury Road is a triumph of high-powered editing masquerading as awesome swashbuckling fun, but much of the soul of this creation has been left by the roadside like so many burnt-out spark plugs: it’s an almost complete dud on an emotional level—and this kind of filmmaking runs on emotion. Yes, it is a good action movie. But it could have, and should have, aimed higher.

Standard
2010s, Australian cinema, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

Mystery Road (2013)

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Director/Screenwriter: Ivan Sen

By Roderick Heath

In an unnamed town on the fringes of the desolate Australian interior where half-hearted suburban tracts abut soul-wearying, bone-dry flatlands and stony hills, a truck driver discovers the corpse of a teenage aboriginal girl named Julie stashed in a drain under the highway where the ominously named but completely dry Massacre Creek sometimes flows. Called out to investigate the crime scene is Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an indigenous policeman newly returned to the district after being trained elsewhere and promoted to detective. His roots are old and deep in the locality, starting with his father, a famed stockman who seems to have died of alcoholism. He finds himself confronted by laxity bordering on contempt by his colleague Roberts (Robert Mommone), whilst his sergeant (Tony Barry), dully lets him investigate but won’t treat the occurrence as an overriding priority. Mystery Road fills Swan’s return to his homeland with evil portent and dissonant messages.
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Swan’s colleagues, particularly the drawling, mordant Johnno (Hugo Weaving), are an odd bunch, and the feeling that something’s going on with everyone around him looms inescapably. Local crime has apparently gotten out of control; Johnno is supposedly on the brink of a major break in a drugs case, which the sergeant seems more interested in. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that the two cases are going to intersect, Swan has to feel his way in the dark, but soon begins to suspect that local pastoralist Bailey (David Field) and his son Pete (Ryan Kwanten), both swaggering racists, might be involved in both cases, and that they might have powerful friends in the illicit drug trade.
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Mystery Road is a work of artisanal intimacy for Ivan Sen, serving as director, writer, editor, music composer and producer—whatever else you can say about it, it’s clearly a work of concentrated and individual personality. Sen’s debut film, Drifting Clouds (2002), was a classic variety of an earnest young filmmaker’s first work, a quasi-neorealist tale of two indigenous teenagers travelling from the far fringes of the outback to the city, dogged by racism, romance, and pursuing police. Sen’s formal gifts were strongly evident, but the film was hampered by poor acting and dialogue. Still, Sen became, for a brief moment, a media darling. Armed with youth, leading-man looks, and aboriginal heritage he’s happy to make the subject of his art, he seemed exactly what Aussie screen culture needed and wanted at the time. Sen dropped out of sight for several years in the aftermath, but returned to screens with Fire Talker (2006), a documentary about Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the barely released features Dreamland (2009) and Toomelah (2011). With Mystery Road, Sen has reclaimed some of his early promise, and his pretences are better served by how he incorporates his socially conscious interest in rural prejudice and his familiarity with indigenous characters caught between worldviews. The best aspect of the film is that the flexibility of the noir tale as a tool of milieu portraiture plays readily into Sen’s plan, as he deftly describes the psychic harshness of the town, with its air of eerie isolation, inverse claustrophobia sparked by the surrounding flatness, the wayward and dissolute state consuming everyone, and particularly the young aboriginals.
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The sharpest moment of racial conflict comes when Swan interviews the taciturn farmer Bailey who quietly needles Swan by mentioning how young aboriginal kids keep stealing things from his property. Swan replies with disingenuous obtuseness, by admiring the expanse of Bailey’s property (“as far as you can see”) and congratulating him on having something to leave to his kids, a remark both men know is actually about whose land it was originally. Bailey’s property lies near Massacre Creek: keeping a vigil close to the murder site, Swan spies an interaction between two men in a car and the driver of a truck stopped on the highway that looks awfully like a drug pickup and payoff. Swan follows the car to a shack on Bailey’s property and is stricken with electric fear and paranoia. It’s very clear something evil’s going on beyond the immediate exigencies of Swan’s case, as the local police force is still smarting after one of its one, Bobby Rogers, was killed in an unsolved shooting a year earlier. As Swan digs, he talks to the dead constable’s wife Peggy (Samara Weaving), who believes he was called out on the night of his death by a fellow cop because of the way he was speaking. But who the cop was and why he called remain mysteries. Early in the film, Swan sits in glum silence at a farewell dinner for an older cop on the force as the sergeant voices his determination to “stop the rot,” because “for some us, it’s the only home we’ve got.”
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Home is a troubling concept for Swan, who’s triply alienated as an aboriginal lawman held in disdain by both the local youths (“We shoot coppers ’round ’ere,” a tyke on a bicycle informs him) and many colleagues and townsfolk. He lives in his family’s large, old house, and is starkly alienated from his former lover Mary (Tasma Walton), who has hit the bottle hard and lives in a seamy, fibre-cement house with his daughter Crystal (Trisha Whitton), who has joined the ranks of brooding, determinedly blasé teens with faces constantly in their cell phones. He recognises sadly that both have succumbed to the entropy that consumes everyone except those determined to resist it: “What happened to you?” he asks Mary in unconcealed disgust when he catches sight of her feeding coins into a slot machine, to which she ripostes with the classic reversal of many a damaged person: “At least I know my problems.” Mystery Road borrows a lot of cues from Westerns, but in some ways it’s a thematic reversal of the classic Western, where the lone lawmen’s private code represents the introduction of civilisation—here it often feels more like a rear-guard action. “For some people, this is already a war zone,” Swan ripostes to his boss’s baleful warnings about what the town might become if its theoretical delicate equilibrium is interrupted.
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Swan searches for Julie’s missing cell phone, and finds it in the possession of another black kid on a bike: the kid exchanges it for an opportunity to fondle Swan’s pistol, which the policeman doesn’t begrudge him, after unloading it, of course. He understands that he has given the lad a bit of stature before his mates and an understanding of the compact force of the weapon: the lad fondles it like a holy icon that promises delivery from banality and boredom. Swan finds photos on the phone of Crystal, Julie, and another pal, Tanni (Siobhan Binge), confirming their close links, which might have extended to a particularly creepy rumour Swan’s heard, that the local teen girls prostitute themselves out to the passing truckies. The case then begins to creep ever closer and more cruelly close to home. After Tanni is found dead, killed in the same way as Julie, Crystal seems to be the inevitable next target. The girls have all been tied together by one of their illicit escapades, which pissed off the wrong people, a picture that begins to resolve after Swan interviews and almost beats up cocky weed dealer Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling). Sen’s most intelligent and effective point about such places lies in the canny observation that almost any kind of sensation becomes welcome respite from tedium and economic deprivation, in addition to the special malaise of the indigenous folk still tied to ancestral lands but with their relationship to it and each other poisoned by a modern lifestyle grafted onto it. Sen repeatedly cuts to high overhead shots of the town streets that make the town look like an experimental moon base erected in a suitably raw location.
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The best-adjusted younger person Swan encounters, Jasmine (Angela Swan), is kept on a short leash by a determined, religious grandmother (Lillian Crombie). But the lone figure of good cheer about the place is Swan’s uncle, Old Boy (Jack Charles), an older aboriginal man Swan pays for street gossip who promptly blows it on penny-ante gambling ring with a cheery kind of dissolution that delivers him from gnawing angst. Sen’s gift for drawing portraits of pained humanity fleshes out two of the film’s most striking scenes: when Swan goes to tell Julie’s mother Ashley (Jarah Louise Rundle) that her daughter’s dead, Ashley already looks like she’s survived a battle and scarcely bats an eyelid when she hears the news.
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Another superlative vignette comes when Swan visits Mr. Murray (Jack Thompson), an aging farmer who reported seeing a severed hand in the jaws of a wild dog that might have belonged to yet another victim of the killer; Murray is quietly furious and heartbroken after wild dogs ripped apart his pet chihuahua. Thompson’s excellence here is both stirring and sad, as the former golden boy of Aussie acting, terribly misused by some directors lately, including Baz Luhrmann in Australia (2008), looks and sounds as old as the hills and effortlessly projects a grim wisdom. His wearied visage effortlessly projects metaphorical weight for Sen in portraying a land that exhausts us pitilessly: despite its brevity, it could well be the performance of Thompson’s career.
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Mystery Road is, however, far from a flawless work. Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when the sergeant comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh. One significant hesitation of Mystery Road is that, like a relatively long list of Aussie films that try to crossbreed genre storytelling with artier postures (The Boys, 1997, Lantana, 2001, Animal Kingdom, 2010), it thinks it’s being subtle when it’s actually all but beating you over the head with obviousness, from the sergeant sucking on an ice cream with gauche disinterest (apparently he couldn’t get donuts that morning) to the sign-posted place names, or Johnno, bathed in bloody red light leaning in on Swan and asking him what he’d do if he ever killed someone accidentally: it’s almost like a set-up for a The Simpsons gag. Such an emphasis on an even surface texture starts to feel phony after a while. Sen’s visuals quickly create a beautifully paranoid evocation of a far west landscape, and yet the sustained mood of ominous tidings, replete with charged silences, loaded conversations and red-herring characterisations, border on excess all the more for the attempts at minimalist rigour.
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Moreover, the film isn’t particularly abashed about its obvious influences: the wedding of noir tale to racial themes strongly evokes In the Heat of the Night (1967), whilst the visuals shout out variously to Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as Cormac McCarthy in general. The emphasis on the spacious menace of the Aussie outback as a perfect place to set a murder mystery/horror film echoes Road Games (1980) and Wolf Creek (2005), and there are casual shout-outs to Friday the 13th (1980) and From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1996).
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Aussie cinema’s long wariness of genre filmmaking has been easing lately, particularly since the ironic rediscovery and legitimisation of the “Ozploitation” trash epics of the late ’70s and ’80s. Mystery Road is also rather reminiscent of Bill Bennett’s lauded Kiss or Kill (1996), with which it shares a mesmerised fascination with the desolation and menace of the great expanses of the Australian outback, upon which it hangs a fairly standard, if obliquely told noir tale. In a similar fashion, Sen’s work suggests a certain pretentious queasiness about being a genre film. Unlike Bennett, at least Sen doesn’t feel the need to start off with a poetic quote to assure his audience that this is self-conscious, pop-art-like exploitation of pulp motifs. But the film’s title points to a knowing approach to the ritualised patterns underlying such storytelling that are, cumulatively, a bit fetid: a body is found at the outset near Massacre Creek, and later our hero arranges a rendezvous for a shoot-out finale at “Slaughter Hill—off Mystery Road.” Well, thank you for the road-map-cum-story-chart, Ivan.
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Equally, a rather silly flourish introduced at the start and recurring throughout refers to the wild dogs that haunt the locality and chewed at Julie’s body. When the coroner (another Aussie movie veteran, Bruce Spence) reports back to Swan, he mentions that the saliva traces suggest some kind of “super dog,” which Swan dismisses as trivia; this weird, quasi-scifi stuff proves to be more laboured symbolism, particularly at the end when a violent clash segues into howling in the hills. More effective as visual explication of an interior theme is a scene in which Swan performs a bit of target shooting with his father’s vintage Winchester rifle, aiming not at empty beer bottles, but at full ones, his private declaration of war on the culture of oblivion-seeking around him. The authority of Sen’s visuals goes beyond mere pictorialism, but rather coherently charts mental and physical straits, sustaining both a sense of menace and blasted beauty in the soul-churning blaze of silhouetting sunsets and dawns, and the skewering brightness of days that offer no sanctuary. There’s a tingling sense of vulnerable solitude when Swan tracks the drug pickup back to Bailey’s place, and effective, clear-cut, visual exposition throughout to counter the murkiness of the dialogue. It’s good, too, that Mystery Road gives Pedersen the perfect star vehicle he’s needed for 20 years.
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One particularly good sequence sees Swan tracking Silverman and witnessing his kidnapping and execution by the villains. Johnno’s actual place in the seeming conspiracy infecting the town remains moot, however, as his question about accidental killing seems to have been motivated by an experience that resulted in his outback exile and current, tight-lipped efforts to prosecute his own case. But he also solicitously rescues Silverman from Swan’s interrogation, which turns violent when Silverman makes a quip about Crystal. Johnno proves to know enough, at least, to prod Swan’s awareness that Crystal is the next target, a subterranean warning that sends Swan off in anxious search for the McGuffin. Said McGuffin drives the last part of the story, as Swan tries to head off further bloodshed, but instead reaps a shoot-out that makes up for some of the longeurs leading up to it. Sen takes the amusing and original tack of making most of his gunfighters terrible shots, with victory belonging not just to the best shot but to the coolest under fire. Sen pushes to the edge of farce with the crappy, point-blank marksmanship on display, whilst exchanges of long-range gunfire are depicted with exacting, thrilling verve keen to the specific difficulties of sniper marksmanship, whilst also, of course, fulfilling earlier glimpses of Swan’s skill. The very finish offers a break in the generally depressive landscape with a rather arbitrary, but thankfully restrained reunion that signals that Swan’s battles have not been in vain.

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2000s, Australian cinema, Drama, Foreign, Historical

Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

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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.

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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 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) 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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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The last section of the film plays out like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) 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.

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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. (1975). 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 (2002). 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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2010s, Action-Adventure, Australian cinema, War

Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010)

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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.

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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. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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1970s, Australian cinema, Drama

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975; Director’s Cut, 1998)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 and also very different manifestations of rampaging irrationality assaulting sunny holidayers, in films like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977; a title that might have suited this film just as well).

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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. 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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Decades later, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains intriguing, inspiring, disconcerting, and ultimately, frustrating.

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2000s, Australian cinema, Biopic

Bright Star (2009)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2000s, Australian cinema, Drama, Foreign

Samson & Delilah (2009)

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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.

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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 irritably tossing Samson’s bedclothes over the fence.

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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 aged relative, 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.

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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.

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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.

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Thornton’s film is, finally, at least far better than some other stabs at portraying contemporary indigenous life in recent years, like the awkward Blackfellas (1993) and tepid Drifting Clouds (2002) (and a thankful curative for the lingering bitterness of Baz Luhrmann’s truly appalling Australia, 2008), 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.

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