Kangaroo (Burstall, 1986)

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It’s easy to imagine this being considered a highly prestigious project at the time; adapted from an esteemed literary source – D.H.Lawrence’s barely-disguised autobiographical re-telling of his brief flirtation with Australian post-war society – Kangaroo would have seemed like a highly worthy arthouse project with enough appeal to ensnare the masses. The acquirement of real-life partners, Colin Friels and Judy Davis, to play Lawrence’s surrogate Richard Somers and his feisty German counterpart Harriet, must have seemed like a stroke of genius. But though they take to their roles with genuine conviction, the aloof and sporadic observations of Lawrence’s outsider mentality seemingly damned the project to critical failure. The weighty original tome itself has long been regarded as a waffling, self-indulgent curiosity and one hardly ripe with cinematic possibilities.

There’s still much to recommend about Kangaroo (1986) however, not the least of which is its wordy dialogue courtesy of English screenwriter Evan Jones, best known for his superlative adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1971), one of the greatest films this country has ever produced. Even in lesser, contextually subservient scenes, Kangaroo brims with ideas and potent insights – incoherently assimilated as they may often be. The man at the helm was the, by then, much experienced director Tim Burstall whose last feature project this was to be after a career that included a trio of noteworthy contributions to the Australian renaissance of the 1970’s in Stork (1971), Alvin Purple (1973) and Petersen (1974).

The film opens with a brief prologue on the Cornish Coast in 1916, setting the stage for change. Here, Somers, a controversial novelist whose latest work has been labelled pornographic by the suspicious locals, ponders an escape from the tyranny of English authorities who condemn his artistic achievements and accuse him of dubious political leanings or even being a spy for the Germans. A few short years later we see the couple setting up stumps in Sydney, hoping for a fresh start, where the eyes of the locals are trained like lasers on outsiders like Somers who carries with him a certain and obvious ‘air’ of superiority.

He may be hoping for a degree of anonymity but unfortunately his reputation precedes him and his notoriety draws the interest of various factions looking to gain an edge in a battle for the hearts and minds of a country on the brink of colossal social upheaval. His neighbour and instant best friend amongst “the beastly suburban bungalows”, Jack Calcott (John Walton), facilitates contact with the famed figure of ‘Kangaroo’ (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the leader of a group of Fascist revolutionaries who harbour spirited but dangerous notions of stirring a young, malleable nation into action. Opposing this group are the unionists, an equally passionate lot who are just as desperate to win Somers’ approval. Their mouthpiece, Struthers (Peter Cummins), wants to insert the famous writer into a role editing a major newspaper where he can influence change from their artificially created pulpit whilst artfully composing reactionary headlines.

Not surprisingly Somers gets in over his head, refusing to side with one group or the other. At the same time, a battle on the home-front adds to the tension with Harriet disturbed by the impassioned but misguided tug-of-war for her husband’s ideological loyalties. Neither of them, having transplanted their lives half-way around the world, can find much solace in Australian life either. An intense dislike of the place eats at their souls, with Somers assuring his wife of having now gained first-hand knowledge into “why the ancient Romans preferred death to exile”.

There’s a staid austerity about this mostly forgotten film which both distinguishes it and marks it for disappointment. The characters are allowed many moments of vivid discourse but ultimately feel propped up to extol the virtues or inadequacies of ‘ideas’ as dictated by Lawrence’s sometimes less than flattering observations of Australian life and its people. Friels can’t avoid a certain remoteness in his portrayal that derives directly from Lawrence’s intellectual superiority; it feels like another variation on the tortured artist driven from his homeland to a savage place populated by men whose ambitions far exceed their capacity to bring about meaningful change. Davis, who earned an AFI award for her performance, transforms Harriet into something far more complex than what is written on the page. It’s another memorable turn from her, despite a German accent that might be unkindly branded ‘dodgy’, and even grating at times.

The countdown to violent confrontation as lawlessness descends feels like a futile contrivance to enliven the film, but Kangaroo, despite its shortcomings, still manages to create a few moments of genuine engagement, mostly through empathy for the valiant, suffering Harriet and the forceful conviction of Walton’s contribution as Calcott. The film is perhaps a failure, offering affected dialogue in place of compelling dramatic momentum, yet the strong performances and literate embellishments of Lawrence’s dalliance with Australian life certainly give it some distinction and an everlasting level of curiosity for its enigmatic interpretation of a lone chapter in a major writer’s life.

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Dingo (de Heer, 1991)

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Funded partially by French interests, necessitating an obligatory subplot set in Paris, Rolf de Heer’s forgotten drama from 1991, Dingo, remains an earnest metaphor and impassioned exhortation for preserving the wildest dreams of ordinary men. When a herculean aircraft appears, almost close enough to touch, over the Western Australian dustbowl town of Poona Flat in 1969, the locals race after it like a gang of sweaty kids in pursuit of a tinkling ice cream van on a 40 degree day. The assembled crowd are soon treated to an impromptu performance by a group of jazz musicians, led by the famous Billy Cross (Miles Davis). One boy in particular, John Anderson (Daniel Scott) is transfixed by the sound of this exotic music wafting over the deserted plains. Summoning all his courage he approaches Cross who, noticing the stars in the eyes of his newest pupil, tells John to look him up some day should he ever venture to Cross’s home base in Paris.

Stepping forward in time we meet the adult version of Anderson (Colin Friels). Still tethered to the surrounds of Poona Flats he’s now a respected trapper, in the process earning himself the nickname ‘Dingo’. He has a wife, Jane (Helen Buday), and two young kids but has never been able to relinquish the secret yearning that first took hold on that surreal day in 1969. He plays the trumpet well, his mournful tunes reverberating against the nearby mountains when he has the chance to sneak away from his duties as husband and father. Through intermittent scenes in a talent agency in Paris we learn the degree of John’s persistence where the owner and his wife marvel at the regularity of the letters pouring in from the oddly named Australian. For years it seems Dingo has been sending them his songs in the hope of discovery and coming face-to-face once more with their most famous client, the man who ignited his pipe dreams of fame.

In casting the always watchable Friels, de Heer was taking few risks, trusting in the actor’s abilities to project an everyman’s veneer whilst allowing access to a credible mix of unlikely partners in jazz and the outback. It’s this unusual union of subject matter that gives the film its original slant, an imperfect but intriguing balance of incongruous elements. John’s passion for his hobby has survived many trials – the latest one being a prank by mate Archie (Steven Shaw) whose faked telegram sets an exultant John off on a mad spending spree, convinced he’s finally hit the big time with the first sale of one of his songs.

Ultimately Dingo is about a man beholden to his dream, to follow it through to its natural conclusion, a course of action which, regardless of the outcome, constitutes success. For though real life and its stifling constructs – a place from which Dingo could continue to live securely in perpetual motion, never venturing beyond its borders – monopolise his attentions, the allure of something greater continues to exert an influence on his subliminal yearnings. Persisting even against the tide of scorn from his mates and the veiled condescension of his loving wife, Dingo continues to imagine an odyssey that culminates in a miraculous encounter with his hero upon a Parisian stage.

In a sense the acquisition of Davis feels a bit like stunt casting. His name alone ensures notice, but his outlandish, almost bizarre appearance with its faintly female characteristics makes for a larger-than-life aspect that doesn’t quite gel with Friels’ expert characterisation. Reputation as a performer aside, Davis simply looks disinterested (in what was, sadly, the last year of his life) and out of his depth with his few dialogue exchanges coming across as decidedly wooden.

De Heer’s third film may not be a major achievement – his follow-up, 1993’s Bad Boy Bubby would be the one that provided him with far greater success and notoriety – but it’s a noteworthy one nevertheless. In its finest moments Dingo compellingly reflects the deep-seated pining burrowing into our brains, demanding a reaction – but from which, more often than not, passivity segues into terminally crippled dreams that, for most of us, only ever play out in our heads.

The Tall Man (Krawitz, 2011)

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In 2009, despite serious misgivings, filmmaker Tony Krawitz decided to venture onto Palm Island, off the Queensland coast, with a mission – to reverse a coin of common perception; to tell the lesser known side of a tragic story that began on November 19, 2004. On an ordinary day, a drunken Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, was arrested for a minor infraction by towering white police officer Christopher Hurley, referred to by the locals as “the tall man”. Some 45 minutes later Doomadgee was dead in the local police station.

A subsequent post mortem report made reference to a slew of internal injuries – including an almost split liver – that are usually equated with those suffered by car-crash victims. In the ensuing weeks these startling medical facts reached the wider community. The reaction from the locals inspired a predictably primal encore. Both Hurley’s house and the police station were effectively reduced to cinders as seething resentment took shape in the form of destructive retribution.

The Tall Man (2011) is compiled of interwoven, affecting interviews with family, friends and other figures pertaining to the court cases that contorted the Queensland courts over a number of years. A sobering context, which details the blighted history of Palm Island itself, is also provided as a necessary counterpoint to its ailing current condition. The director, using Chloe Hooper‘s book of the same name as the basis for his investigation, may be accused of blatant proselytising in orchestrating a campaign that refutes the innocence of Hurley. But by broadening the coverage of this tragedy he confronts the many ambiguities, allowing room for conclusions that any average person would naturally arrive at. Till now, it’s been the simplified newsworthy outcomes that form the basis of public knowledge – a flawed, semi-blind perception reducing nuance to footnotes that require concerted digging to make sense of them and their ramifications.

The murky morality surrounding the guilt or innocence of this officer is complicated by dubious testimony from a drunken local, Hurley’s own untainted past record working in Aboriginal communities and the high probability of conspiratorial manipulation by the Palm Island officers and their superiors – the kind of behaviour that magnetically draws suspicion when brought to light. All of these elements are organically integrated into the narrative by Krawitz in a compelling manner.

The Tall Man is a first-rate documentary, offering an impassioned, humane perspective of Doomadgee’s tragic story whilst keeping away from the emotional fuse that, once lit, might unnaturally skewer audience reaction. The failings of the legal system are rightfully put under the microscope: who does it really serve and why? Krawitz has constructed a compelling real life tale that, reduced to its basic components, whether factual or inferential, underlines most emphatically a sense of its pervasive sadness.

Toomelah (Sen, 2011)

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Director Ivan Sen’s follow-up to the head-scratching, frustratingly abstract Dreamland (2009) sees him back on home soil to tell a personal tale of how the endemic indifference of our country has created a void into which countless lives empty out like broken vessels. In the Aboriginal township of Toomelah, a dusty outpost and former mission straddling the New South Wales-Queensland border, a fearless young 10 year old, Daniel (Daniel Connors), is getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Given the flick from school because of his threatening behaviour towards another boy, he hangs around local drug-dealer Linden (Christopher Edwards) hoping to be taken seriously as a future member of a roughly assembled gang of wannabes.

Daniel’s parents are not exactly role models; his mother, like most members of the community, sits around doing little between scoring drugs, whilst his father is an inveterate drunk whose only inclination is to sit on a gutter feeling sorry for himself. Trouble arises when a man just released from jail, Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones), muscles in on Linden’s turf, placing Daniel in the middle of a potentially volatile situation. Even though the conflict is treated as another lazy distraction for these people by Sen, a sense of genuine tension is created as the two men are seemingly set along a path towards an eventual confrontation.

Idleness breeds contempt in this remote place in which people are helpless to assist their own cause; educationally and financially constrained, they sink deeper into apathy. Toomelah (2011) makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the underlying humanism of Sen’s vision offers a much needed counterpoint to the despair that grips like a vice. The ghostly remnants of the town’s past life as a mission strike a poignant note too in stirring painful recollections of the older members of the community, their identities equally confused or misplaced by discriminating government policies.

Using his own sparse compositions to create a sombre undercurrent of musical support, Sen has fashioned a film that cuts close to the bone in its examination of this profoundly sad and troubled place. The mostly non-actors occasionally do the film a disservice but their verbal interactions – spiced with plenty of profanity from the mouths of the very young – are mostly believable. Daley-Jones, an impressive lead in Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards (2010), imposes his striking physical presence once again. Young Connors is undoubtedly the film’s centrepiece however; the way he holds his nerve in certain scenes, conveying the ambivalence and confusion of youth is actually quite remarkable.

Though a languid portrait of idleness that takes pains to illuminate the stasis in which this tenuous community exists, Toomelah is still strangely compelling viewing. The constantly moving camera – and fleeting out-of-focus shots that you become so used to you cease noticing them – reflects a place in which repetition is its own defence against the struggle of everyday living. Toomelah will not be to everyone’s tastes but despite glaring flaws, it’s a brave and important film in the same vein as Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). This too is a grimly persuasive social document that will provoke and sadden in equal measure. The balance of perspectives it offers ultimately is a perfect compromise: it’s inflexible, in never allowing its naturalism to be polluted by commercial considerations, and yet offers a tantalising hope for something better – the hope of re-embracing a rich and varied culture – in its final moments.

Idiot Box (Caesar, 1996)

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From the seedy fringes of Australian suburbia, director David Caesar dredges up a portrait of idle and vanquished lives in his second feature Idiot Box (1996). Two moronic dole bludgers, Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) and Mick (Jeremy Sims), spend their life stuck in a familiar loop. Highlights of their day include a walk to the local bottle shop or terrorising a neighbour’s guard dog. With little cash and no means of transportation, their lone ‘big idea’ comes in the form of robbing a bank. Mick has even concocted a recipe for sure-fire success, one that avoids the stereotypical failings he’s made note of in run-of-the-mill Hollywood films.

A cynical hothead who treats his live-in girlfriend Betty (Susie Porter) like a piece of errantly-placed furniture, Kev’s notions of carrying out the perfect crime soon begin to take on the weight of something tangible. At the same time, Mick tries to crack on to the pretty young wide-eyed bottle shop attendant, Lani (Robyn Loau), whose overbearing but dim-witted brother will later become entangled in the pair’s criminal delusion. Coincidentally, a series of bank robberies has a pair of hotshot detectives (Graeme Blundell and Deborah Kennedy) baffled, scouring through the files of lowlifes in the region to come up with viable suspects. Inevitably, it seems, their compasses will be pointing in a certain direction as the fates of our protagonists and others converge.

What mostly prevents Caesar’s profane, kinetic drama from devolving into grotesquery is its coal-black streak of humour. The constant banter between Kev and Mick may be crude and juvenile but it’s genuinely funny too, and rings with a degree of depressing but undeniable truthfulness. Whether recreating a robbery scenario in their living room with a toilet brush in place of a gun, or snatching a donation tin from a guy in a koala suit – which sets off a madcap foot race – these two malcontents are constantly pushing the boundaries of an oblivion that’s closing in further with suffocating intent each uneventful day.

Stylistically the film has plenty going for it with Caesar’s astute cinematic sensibilities really coming to the fore. The narrative moves quickly, settling into a rocking, rasping rhythm all its own. There are consistently interesting set-ups, camera movements and quick cuts that bring immediacy to what, in other hands, might have been a stale, navel-gazing drama. At times Caesar may slightly overdo it; certainly the wild diversity of music choices, though generally effective, often create jarring transitions between scenes, but the unsettling, abrasive tone Caesar is aiming for comes across loud and clear.

Idiot Box is an uncompromising look in the mirror, a vision of vanquished men hamstrung by a lack of education, prospects or the intelligence to extract themselves from the morass of a suburban hell. Beyond the dark stain of its often coarse but very Australian humour there’s an indelible imprint of stunted lives vanishing to the beat of a silent drum; of a writer taking deadly aim, not only at the ruthless, oblivious world around us, but more transparently, at ourselves most of all. Idiot Box proves that we’re our own worst enemies, treading water in a tenuous impersonation of living.

Mick and Kev are worryingly symptomatic of a recognisable surburban malaise. They’re pathetic drongos – misfits who’ve sacrificed a few too many brain cells to the almighty God of Alcohol. They may be great for a laugh, but Kev in particular is sliding dangerously close to the point of internal combustion. He despises boredom, he says. He may dream of robbing a bank by force, but is it to reap a financial bounty as a means of improving their chances of survival? Or simply to alleviate the drudgery of their directionless existences?

This remains Caesar’s finest hour as a writer and as a director, providing social observation camouflaged as nihilism, supplemented with lashings of brash, misogynistic futility; all relayed with a potency he hasn’t been able to replicate since. It may swell with ugly external markings and be an unlikely candidate for consideration as a defining film of its time, but Idiot Box works perfectly on a visceral level. It’s something akin to being told a viciously funny joke whilst having your head rammed down a toilet bowl.

 

The Man From Snowy River (Miller, 1982)

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Iconic images spring to mind at the mention of The Man From Snowy River (1982) – the other George Miller’s most lauded film: the two romantic leads on horseback locked in a first meaningful embrace as the scenic backdrop brings them into stark relief. The two figures were actors soon to become far more familiar in the years to follow: a young Tom Burlinson as Jim Craig, the noble-intentioned mountain lad any mother would be glad to see on the arm of their daughter, and Sigrid Thornton as Jessica, the fiery-tempered daughter of a wealthy-by-good-fortune American, Harrison (Kirk Douglas). A second image, recalled most vividly by the film’s most ardent fans, and just as vividly burned into our consciousness is the spectacular sight of Jim powering his noble stead down a breathtakingly steep mountain face in pursuit of the pack of renegade wild brumbies as part of the thrilling set-piece that brings the film to a rousing close. But just how kind has the passing of years been to this audience-friendly adaptation of ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s most famous poem?

In the desolate Victorian countryside, Jim works alongside his father Henry (Terence Donovan) on their modest mountain property. But when tragedy strikes and Henry is killed in an accident, setting one of their best horses free, Jim must learn to survive on his own. Into the nearby township he heads searching for honest labour, though he’s immediately scrutinised with suspicion due to his humble origins. His earnestness and work ethic win favours with Harrison however who offers him a position as a stablehand where he diligently takes to his lowly tasks despite the mean-spirited ribbing of his co-workers, especially the spiteful Curly (Chris Haywood). In his spare time he works equally hard at impressing Harrison’s lovely but feisty daughter Jessica.

Left behind with the men called away on an arduous ride, Jim decides to try and win some brownie points by breaking in Harrison’s expensive colt, the last offspring of Old Regret. It backfires however when the pack of wild horses passes by, distracting the colt who roughly dispatches Jim and escapes. Upon his return, a furious Harrison assembles every handler in the surrounding districts, including the legendary Clancy (Jack Thompson), convinced the potential loss of his colt is Jim’s doing. Can the young mountain lad make amends and win the heart of Jessica in the process? The outcome is hardly a surprise, but the journey is undoubtedly an adventurous, spirited one relayed with a uniquely Australian voice but with enough universality to ensure broad appeal.

Burlinson’s screen debut set him on the road to stardom and rightly so for he embodies the fresh-faced Jim with the combined vigour and exuberance of youthful impulsivity. It’s true, he doesn’t exactly set the world on fire with his acting range but he has the appealing good looks and requisite physical presence to dissuade any notion of him being unable to cut it once a bit of equine mastery is called for.

Douglas laps up his duel roles with a strange kind of relish, especially in the case of Harrison’s brother, the colourful, one-legged Spur. Early on he’s designated as the comic relief, the hoary loner devoting much of life to panning for fool’s gold whilst Harrison, who unjustly disowned him, willingly clasped at circumstances engineered by fate. Jack Thompson seems underutilised as Clancy, spoken of in glowing terms as the greatest horseman in the land, and who Harrison pleads to lead the charge to retrieve his prized colt. But Clancy falls back into the ruck when push comes to shove, deferring to Jim whose show of strength not only proves to Jessica his worth as a man, but also to the wider community – spotted as it is with vocal detractors – of his credentials as a horseman ready to assume a man’s responsibility before his time.

Who doesn’t recall the film’s score? For this we can thank the talents of composer Bruce Rowland whose lyrical main themes have become as inextricably bound to the images as anything else, musically representing the film’s purest spirit with its wide open spaces and simplified evocation of freedom.

Perhaps the name of Paterson’s poem conjures an image of grace and perfection that can’t be matched by the reality of the film. More than 30 years on, The Man From Snowy River remains a thrilling ride; part tentative first romance, part rite-of-passage for its young hero. Though it’s not without shortcomings, we’re probably all guilty of appraising the film, in hindsight, with a nostalgic fondness that conveniently consigns its slightly dated elements into the background. And I’m no different, for those iconic images we most readily associate with it are undeniably memorable and testament to the film’s enduring appeal.

The Heartbreak Kid (Jenkins, 1993)

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Stories that reflect Australia’s embrace of multiculturalism are, thankfully, more common place on cinema screens these days, but more than 20 years ago the same could hardly be said and a piece like Michael Jenkins’s The Heartbreak Kid (1993) emerged as a breath of fresh air. The film stands the test of time in two respects: firstly in that it provides enlightenment of deeply rooted culturally relevant issues – streamlined though they may be – whilst simultaneously maximising chances for a feel good hit in the very commercial appeal attached to it.

Plucked from obscurity, 18 year-old Alex Dimitriades was chosen for the role of Nick Polides, a headstrong, volatile student with grand aspirations of making it big as a stud on the soccer field. Sadly, at his Melbourne high school little progress is being made in abetting those dreams, for he’s unable to even convince the staff to resurrect the notion of a representative soccer team. In a climate ruled by an ingrained religious devotion to Aussie Rules, soccer comes off as an impoverished second cousin long excluded from this particular school’s curriculum. Nick seethes when confronted by the embodiment of this attitude in Mr. Southgate (William McInnes), the footy coach who early on is pitched forward as an all too-obvious adversary; he’s the most vocal dissenting voice in the staff room, a crowd of one rallying against the intrusion into his playground of a game demeaningly referred to – by the community at large at that time – as ‘wog ball’.

Luckily for Nick, a guardian angel steps in to fill the breach in the form of young teacher Christina Papadopoulos (Claudia Karvan) who senses that Nick’s misplaced anger might best be redirected into more productive outlets. Brushing aside the mocking laughter of her fellow staff members, she puts her hand up to coach a hastily assembled soccer team whilst admitting, in the same breath, to not possessing a skerrick of knowledge about the game. But with the cocksure Nick as her guiding hand, she’s able to at least set the wheels of change in motion.

Nick is won over by Christina’s noble decision to stand up for his motley crew of ethnic outcasts. But in the course of their combined efforts to form a cohesive sporting unit, deeper feelings develop. His attraction to Christina begins its pubescent conversion from the lusty fantasies associable with a schoolboy’s crush to serious consideration of Christina as “his girl”. Impropriety aside, he may be just deluding himself. Certainly Nick’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of her would scare off most women, but for Christina – not much older than her students at 22 and still able to relate to their fickle crushes – negating external factors begin to take their toll, alleviating the implausibility of the scenario.

She can certainly relate to the overpowering parental control that Nick is hardly alien to – the type that suffocates with good intentions but leaves precious little leeway for personal freedom to flourish. Raised to respect and adhere to her parents’ wishes, Christina has her life plotted out on a circumscribed path, including a pre-determined husband-to-be, Dimitri (Steve Bastoni). There’s even a model home chosen for her by Dimitri without any consultation that offers little room to breathe, being right across the street from her parents’ home! Having another decision taken out of her hands adds to the sense of subtle manipulation; it’s a façade of compliance as honour, the kind with a firm foothold in tradition, but which the free-willed Christina must reduce to old-world memories if she’s ever going to become her own woman.

Karvan is terrific in this early role that followed her initial breakthrough in The Big Steal (1990). She has that intriguing youthful mix of fresh-faced beauty and yet with the hint of a tomboy in her short hair and ability to pull off a fetching run over a muddy playing field in skimpy shorts and a soccer jersey.

It’s a very physical performance from Dimitriades, in more ways than one; early on he’s a ball of energy, unable to suppress his outrage at the school’s denial of a soccer team. In this way, he’s also living in the shadow of his father George (Nick Lathouris) who once played for the Greek national team. The innate pressure associated with fulfilling parental expectations is a universal one but it has special connotations with those of ethnic minorities in Australian society where the weight of overcoming an implied racial mistrust is ever present.

Jenkins, who jointly adapted the screenplay with the author of the original play, Robert Barrett, does a decent job of relaying how these pressures come to bear on both Nick and Christina. Funnily enough, he’s never made another feature, working exclusively in TV ever since. There’s an element of manipulation and cliché as to how the relationships are pushed to the edge of fragmentation, but the issues they raise have hardly lost their relevance.

It’s fascinating to watch Nick’s perspective alter as his schoolboy crush takes on more meaningful proportions. For a while he just sees Christina as an idyllic object of privilege, the ones not afforded him; an unattainable goddess representative of his cultural ties to both Australia and his ancestry. For Christina, Nick himself may seem unrefined, but she’s attracted to his impulsive, giddily unpredictable nature; a young man yet to explore his potential but equally moved by the prospect of passion as pain. Raw and rebellious, he represents an unlikely outlet to release her stresses, and a polar opposite to the calculating, money-obsessed Dimitri. If her feelings were based on little more than unleashing some suppressed sexual frustration then their relationship would be doomed to a spectacular but swift end. Slowly however, Christina has to put aside the distracting fact of Nick’s youth to understand the reasons she’s really attracted to him and address whether he has any of the qualities she really desires in a man.

And what of the moral implications of a teacher engaging in sexual relations with one of her students? Well, there’s certainly a murky area of grey to consider here, though it doesn’t draw a whole lot of attention other than from Nick’s dad who is appropriately disconsolate at the thought of such a strict moral breach. We can assume that most people have few qualms about such a relationship when the ages of those involved are so close, but what a different light might have been shed on these trysts had the sexual roles been reversed? The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly hot and heavy though it’s hard to know how seriously to take the exultant choral music overlaid across the first of them. Both actors are game however and because of that fact, The Heartbreak Kid mostly defies the juvenile associations of its title. Hopefully it will be remembered as a piece of slick entertainment that also provides some valuable commentary and insights into the rapidly changing makeup of Australian society.

Ned Kelly (Jordan, 2003)

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Beyond every shifting guise appropriated by the late Heath Ledger there exists the bittersweet temptation to look back with poignancy, to ponder the creative heights all too briefly scaled. In Ned Kelly, Australia’s most notorious outlaw and anti-hero of legendary proportions, Ledger communed with a kindred spirit, a man who would sacrifice everything to erase the besmirching of his family’s name. And like Ledger, Ned too was a man destined to perish at a tragically premature age.

Gregor Jordan’s film is undoubtedly the most polished and dramatically satisfying re-tread of the Kelly story, offering a welcome balance of drama and portraiture of a necessarily self-serving nature. And despite the presence of Naomi Watts as the fictional, designated love interest – the girl who fancies Ned but can offer no alibi for fear of disgrace – she’s wisely kept to the margins, saving the drama from being cheapened by populist expectations.

The film begins with an oblique shot, later revealed to be Ned’s proudest moment when, aged 10, he saved another boy from drowning. We’re then transplanted to 1871 as a young Ned has his first brush with the law, accused of stealing a horse. From there his struggles and those of his family – with whom troubles with the law have been commonplace – are etched in broad, persuasive strokes. Ned himself is a brawler, earning money with his fists, but just as he’s about to move on, a fateful night intervenes.

Whilst engaged in a tryst with the English girl (Watts), who exists far beyond his social strata, a lily-livered copper with a personal grudge against Ned, Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore), visits the Kellys only to leave with a whipping from Ned’s family and friends. But the battle lines are drawn as Fitzpatrick sets his false story in motion: Mrs. Kelly (Kris McQuade) is taken into custody and the search for Ned and his gang begins. The police want their man and will adopt any means to track him down. Similarly, Ned must resort to reluctant bloodletting to avenge the injustice of his mother’s incarceration and there’s no going back once his bridges are burned. Reparations can no longer be considered, for “wasn’t it now war?” For his deeds, which included taking the lives of a few obstinate officers, Ned has a world record bounty placed on his head. But though seemingly everyone who’s ever known him is arrested, nobody gives up the ghost for the sake of the exorbitant sum – such was the high esteem in which Ned was held.

Ledger makes a first rate Kelly, convincingly conveying the basic decency of a man oppressed by the authorities: principled, loyal and resolute. His intermittent voiceover is employed to good effect too, like a ghostly reminder from beyond the grave of Ned’s ability to endure, to evoke heated dialogue about the legitimacy of his legacy more than a century later. The accents are a little dodgy, especially that employed by Orlando Bloom as Ned’s valiant offsider Joe Byrne, but it never hurts the tone established by Jordan and his cinematographer Oliver Stapleton who captures the sombre, almost colourless Victorian bushland with a discerning eye.

Big names like Watts and Geoffrey Rush as the staunch Superintendent recruited from South Africa to lead the hunt for Ned, become bit players for it’s the classic confrontation of the persecuted opposing the unjust that commands most attention. Yet for all the failings of the film to flesh out complementary sub-plots, it’s this adherence by screenwriter John Michael McDonagh to a universal ideal that provides the drama with the impetus it needs to rouse our emotions. Another vital ingredient is the score by Klaus Badelt who contributes possibly the finest of his career to date, other than the more sublime moments of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006). The main theme, in particular, is an appropriately stirring elegy, yet remains admirably understated in most incarnations, never overpowering the images.

Ned’s seething and defiance reach an emotive peak in the brief sampling of his Jerilderie Letter composition; there’s also a wonderfully doom-laden lead up to the final showdown, in which Ned and his gang face an army of officers in their armour-plated defence. Here, Ned’s narration devolves into bleak musings on his dire predicament as he, and the creatures surrounding him in the woods where he lies in wait, are reduced to elemental means of survival.

You could argue Jordan’s portrayal of Ned is perhaps a little too lopsided, a fact sure to be widely criticised beyond these shores. But reminders of Ned’s heroics, and the iconic imagery they evoke, have penetrated our cultural landscape to such an extent that anything less than a biased portrayal would be considered almost sacrilegious. Ned Kelly (2003), tinged with the morose inevitability of its outcome, is a worthy addition to a voluminous body of the work obsessed with affirming a reckless but revered Australian legend.

The Getting of Wisdom (Beresford, 1978)

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Ethel Richardson’s 1910 novel about a free-spirited 14 year old country girl refusing to be sculpted and made to fit a mould of British Empire-influenced respectability was adapted with its most important themes and spirited sense of humour intact by Bruce Beresford in 1978. At the time the young director had just finished the seminal Don’s Party (1976) and, before that, a pair of crude Barry McKenzie vehicles starring a young Barry Humphries who would feature prominently in this, Beresford’s first attempt at a film striving to address heightened literary sensibilities.

It’s the turn of the century in rural Victoria’s Warrenega where the unfortunately named Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susannah Fowle) is about to be shipped off to Melbourne’s prestigious Ladies College. Laura is ridiculed for her frightful red bonnet by the College’s representatives on the train journey and upon arrival finds herself immediately at odds with the school’s airs and graces. The stern and uppity Mrs. Gurley (Sheila Helpmann) assaults her with a litany of rules and regulations before she’s even had time to catch her breath. It’s a clear indicator of the kind of superior attitude that saturates these hallowed halls.

Laura has a love-hate relationship with most of the students; she’s not incapable of taking part in their irreverent, playful, girls-own activities but when it all boils down, she’s viewed as an outsider, earning gently mocking nicknames like “Tweedledum” and “Ram’s Bottom” in the process. She’s an ugly duckling pressed into the company of graceful swans, yet continues to flabbergast and then infuriate students and teachers alike with her blasé attitude and direct, unrefined manner. She shows startling aptitude for the piano as well which will cause a jealous division later on, but in a world where conformity most pleases the teachers, her eagerness comes across as impertinence; her politeness as naivety or ignorance.

Laura’s modest origins are a source of constant stress; her mother runs the local post office in Warrenega and the fact of it becomes a dirty secret she attempts to divert focus from to ease the embarrassment. To her credit she quickly develops a tough outer layer, able to turn the tables on newcomers in her second year, grilling for points of weakness with which to exploit them down the track. But she experiences guilt immediately afterwards – surely a reaction much closer to that of the true Catholic the teachers would like her to become!

Much of the success of The Getting of Wisdom hinges on its performances and debutante Fowle was a great choice to personify the memorable Laura. She’s funny, moving and engaging with a wonderful naturalness to her performance, a lack of inhibition that immediately has us siding with Laura rather than the majority – teachers included – who often walk around as though balancing invisible books on their heads. The younger cast members are equally good; nestled amongst them are familiar names of today in early roles like Sigrid Thornton and Kerry Armstrong. The distinctive looking Kim Deacon is especially good as Laura’s roommate Lilith, whilst John Waters makes the most of his few scenes as the school’s newest recruit, Reverend Shepherd, whom all the girls are instantly and madly besotted with. An almost unrecognizable Barry Humphries offers convincing fire and brimstone moments as their principal, Reverend Strachey; his public denouncement – via a wrathful hailstorm of public accusation – of a girl caught stealing is an electrifying outburst and memorable moment.

Though not explicit, a harsh religiosity is often inferred; an adherence to purity that ultimately chokes creativity and leads to deception to escape thunderous retribution. After getting herself invited to Reverend Shepherd’s home, Laura resorts to fabrication to infuriate the other girls who’ve gone mad with jealousy and suspect a mortifyingly “sordid intrigue” between them. But it’s a fickle world, Laura discovers, for once her playful deceit is flushed out into the open, the girls are no longer playing. They converge on her like a coven of razor-tongued witches, only jealous that Laura’s time spent alone with the Reverend wasn’t theirs to brag about.

The subtle work of Hilary Ryan as Evelyn, the object of Laura’s obsession later on, can’t be underestimated either. She projects a reserved, dignified grace that snares the vulnerable Laura in her web; the younger girl is tantalised by her maturity, sophistication and ability to deal with men who Laura hates and fears in equal measure. The faint crush Laura develops for her will eventually become another painful but instructive chapter on her path to maturity and finding her true self but for a while, fed by her immature longings, Evelyn proves to be the embodiment of everything Laura aspires to become.

The final two sequences pose fascinating questions in ambiguous ways. From a first-person perspective we see Laura receiving congratulations on her successful transition to accomplished pianist. Everyone is there in fleeting glimpses, a succession of figures that dogged and chided her along the way. But are they real or just wishfully provoked faces conjured from her wildest flights of fancy, a future she’s dreamt up in self-preservation or revenge?

Finally there’s the sight of Laura taking off from the group in a park setting; just off to “have a good run” she tells them. She disappears through the ranks of park revelers – the jaunty brass band, the elegant ladies escorted under sun umbrellas – to a point on the distant horizon. But is she just running away, or towards something specific? Is this closing scene an affirmation of Laura’s free will? Or simply a negation of the limited possibilities of life at starchy institutions of learning like The Ladies College with their active discouragement of individuality? Either way, The Getting of Wisdom remains an Australian classic and one of our more enlightening and entertaining coming-of-age stories.

Sunday Too Far Away (Hannam, 1975)

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Set in 1956, Ken Hannam’s first feature is a landmark depiction of the lives of a close-knit crew of sheep shearers in outback Australia. Ostensibly the story of Foley (Jack Thompson), the film encompasses a series of rich characterisations of the men who are requisitioned by the cordial Tim King (Max Cullen), a local businessman who has long had an ambition to be a shearing contractor and take out a shed of his own. When his old friend Foley unexpectedly turns up after an ill-fated relocation to Brisbane, he decides to win him over, hoping for a snowball effect to claim more of the town’s best shearers in the process, despite most of them having upcoming contracts to fulfill.

Loading up Tim’s car, they head out to the remote Timberoo shed where the bulk of the film takes place. Here Foley and an odd assortment of mostly toughened veterans undertake the daily grind of their trade for six weeks whilst the property’s owner, the “Cocky,” Mr. Dawson (Philip Ross) oversees all, his greatest fear being that one of these brash outlaws will experience a slip in concentration and lop off the testicles of one of his prize-winning rams. Dawson is contemptuous of the men, regardless of their necessity, admitting to his teenage daughter Sheila (Lisa Peers) after the first day that “I’d forgotten what scum they are.”

The men alongside Foley include grizzled old warrior and unrepentant alcoholic, Garth (Reg Lye), comic relief Ugly (John Ewart) and a suspicious outsider from NSW, Arthur Black (Peter Cummins), who seems the only man capable of going toe-to-toe with Foley in the race for the shed’s top dog. Together, through days of sweltering heat and weekends of inevitably hard drinking that flatten out the hours of boredom into manageable lengths of time, the men somehow survive. Colourful references abound to the wretched cooking of their hired gun chef, the ogre-like Quinn (Ken Weaver) who Foley is finally called to act upon on behalf of the mens collective aching stomachs. His plan involves getting the big fella drunk on his beloved Essence of Lemon, bottles of which he ‘borrows’ from Mr. Dawson’s home, before pouncing on the weakened giant at his time of greatest vulnerability and delivering a withering blow.

The single most distinctive feature of Sunday Too Far Away (1975) is its remarkable authenticity. Filmed in remote South Australia at Cariewerloo shearing station once used in Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960), it manages to immerse us in the sweaty, oppressive confines of this place with its constant, rowdy atmospheric clang. For these men, this is a vocation they’ve reluctantly entrusted their livelihoods to and though times are tough they’re duty bound to keep pushing through the pain barrier. With the lens of cinematographer Geoff Burton smothering the men in the heat of battle, there’s no risk of them being unduly glamourised or cariacaturised, the monotony and abrasive physical labour of torrid days spent staving off heat and an endless tide of reluctant ovine adversaries palpable in virtually every scene. The film is as much about male bonding as anything else and it captures the enduring capacity of these men to form a cohesive working unit even under the most trying circumstances.

Thompson has a plethora of memorable roles buried in his back-catalogue but Foley is undoubtedly one of his finest characterisations. Despite his air of invincibility and laconic attitude, a bittersweet aura lingers about him. On one hand his legendary deeds in the shearing sheds have earned him respect, his reputation having spread far and wide, but there’s a subtly-defined emptiness inside him too, rearing its head in moments of silent contemplation. It’s like a yearning for some intangible quality that has escaped him; a direction that might have provided his life with greater meaning. You sense that his imposing physical presence and dominance in the sheds have been a dangerous drawback preventing him from seeking another escape route. His return from Brisbane in the opening scene infers a capitulation; a man who surveyed the horizon for fresh adventures and came to the conclusion that there’s really only one place he can ever call home. He re-enters the fray with his tail between his legs, but quickly picks up his downed tools with the kind of tenaciousness and bravado that exemplifies the outback Australian spirit. As good as Thompson is, he’s more than matched by the rest of the cast who are each afforded indelible moments that, although small, effectively create an assembly of depth out of John Dingwall’s first-class screenplay.

The film finally touches on the shearer’s strike of 1956 as the price of wool forced their wages down; this in turn brought an influx of ‘scab’ labour to town where the frustration and despair of Foley and the men manifests itself in rage that eventually leads to an all-in pub brawl. It concludes this magnificent film with a telling statement on the unity and integrity of ‘average’ Australians who’ll fight like rabid dogs to uphold their dignity, to protect their home ground and maintain their quality of life. The only thing that spoils the effect? Thompson’s god-awful singing of the theme song – penned by Bob Ellis – over the front and end credits. Talk about pained screeching! Jack’s vocal work sounds like the emissions of a sheep or five ensnared in a barbed wire fence, baa-ing for swift mercy. Luckily everything in between these two grating outbursts more than makes up for Jack’s crimes against good musical taste.