Thursday, June 25, 2009
Stark, grim and unrelenting, this tragic tale, for all its shortcomings, makes trenchant statements about the histories that have made Australians who we are.
It’s 1902, the year after Federation, when the Australian colonies joined together to become a nation. The ideal of a young country where the ‘working man’ gets a fair go is strong, and the mischievous but basically kind bush larrikin is a potent figure.
Things between widower Nat and his two children, Tom and Sarah, are becoming strained. They struggle to find the next meal while living in a cramped, gloomy hut on their tiny selection in the South Australian bush. The teenage Sarah believes her father’s experiment in living off the land has failed and she’s desperate to leave. But Nat is determined to succeed, although he’s a schoolteacher by trade and totally unskilled as a farmer.
Nat is one of the small landowners that colonial selection Acts were supposed to turn into successful farmers. But Connolly, the local squatter, has sold marginal land to the selectors, and he’s now buying it back at a pittance and building a railway.
With the arrival of three strangers on horseback – ex-soldiers who may be friends or foes – the film quickly adopts a thriller atmosphere.
The mood is dour and oppressive. Director of photography Jules O’Loughlin has leached much of the colour out of the South Australian landscape. It’s unyielding, with little variation in sun and shade. The characters are shown in grim close-ups, looking swarthy or unnaturally pale, their Edwardian clothes at odds with the muddy bushland. This creates a feeling of claustrophobia, no mean feat in the wide open spaces of the Australian bush. It works well in the outdoor scenes, but the darkness of the bush hut interior means it’s sometimes hard to see what’s going on in the indoor scenes.
From the start, the film refuses to create a romanticised past for the viewer to savour. Instead, it wants us to understand that the past had its own myths as well as its ineffable realities. In this way it directly challenges films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock. While the Australian landscape held a threat and menace in Picnic, it was also a place of romance and mysterious charm, a contrast to the laced-in sexuality of Edwardian schoolgirls.
Here, the bush is menacing for a different reason. Refusing to nurture and support, to nourish and replenish, it becomes the backdrop as well as the source of a grim battle for survival. The bleached grey-greens of tall gums recall Hans Heysen and Tom Roberts; the land withholds, gives nothing away. But in contrast to Picnic, the bush is always secondary to the action, not a character in its own right. Instead, human evil, in particular greed, is the major threat.
Competing myths abound in this isolated place threatened by modernity. The selection Acts, and the idea of a federated Australia, were based on the myth of creating a ‘working man’s paradise’. Nat clings to the fanatical belief that it is God’s plan for him to work the land and succeed in taming it.
Henry Lawson’s stories of small landholders had dramatically exposed the harsh realities of rural life. But they also perpetuated their own myths of Australian resourcefulness, suggesting that the quintessential Australian lived in the bush although the majority already lived in cities.
Of course, another important myth had only recently been replaced – for some at least, the biblical God was now dead, and Darwin’s survival of the fittest had taken on convenient meanings. And the promise of untold riches on the goldfields still held sway.
It’s not hard to see how earlier Australian films that viewed the past in new and interesting ways have paved the way for this one. The themes may be different, but the universal, elemental nature of the narrative in Rolf de Heer’s Tracker comes to mind. The welcome shock of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, which almost revelled in depicting the low-level misery of nineteenth-century rural Australia, is an obvious predecessor, as is The Proposition, with its bloodthirsty Australian take on the western. Even the ghost of The Piano, with its stark portrayal of cruelty and violence, can be glimpsed.
My problem with the film is that once the dramatic temperature goes up, it stays up, unremittingly. There’s no relief and no leavening humour. At one point, towards the end of the film, the thriller/chase elements become overly neat plot devices. With so much violence on screen, there’s the risk that the viewer will become immured and almost indifferent to it. The many plot twists help to maintain audience interest but may be overly challenging to some.
The thriller element also leads to occasional over-stylisation. The character of Sarah has many possibilities; yet despite some interesting sexual politics, her actions never fulfil the promise of her character and ultimately become slave to the plot machinations.
The film’s resonances are sometimes richer and more powerful than the narrative itself. Despite its initial appeal to realism, it works well as an allegory of economic rationalism, Australia’s reliance on natural resources, and the materialism, greed and xenophobia unleashed by the Howard government. The film also evokes the opposing narrative of the ubiquitous but elusive Australian dream of home ownership, now threatened by ruthless banks, desperate governments and greedy real estate agents.
Aden Young’s extraordinary performance gives the film credibility. For most of the film everything revolves around Nat’s fanatical determination, and Young inhabits this frail but iron-willed man completely. As the story progresses Tom slowly becomes the focal point, and Toby Wallace is natural and convincing in this challenging role, his work here presaging a lasting talent.
Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, who plays Sarah, is a talented actress, but she’s too theatrical here and needed stronger direction; her quizzical, frightened glances are at times almost melodramatic, adding to the impression that the script was originally that of a play.
The score, by Tom Schutzinger, is unobtrusive, only occasionally and very subtly suggesting the menace on screen. Unlike the music in some thrillers, it never descends to a mad signalling to the audience that they’re supposed to feel scared.
Director Kriv Stenders already has three feature films to his credit, including the low-budget Blacktown and Boxing Day, both praised by critics. The scale of his ambition is clear here: he’s chosen a story of epic themes. If the execution is sometimes flawed, the attempt is interesting and resonant.
Verdict: thematically powerful, mainly strong performances, but loses its way when the thriller genre takes over