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.