Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife (#filmreview)

We have been talking about decolonising over at Lisa’s blog, and it just so happens that last week I went to see actor-writer-director Leah Purcell’s feature film The drover’s wife: The legend of Molly Johnson. If you are Australian, or are knowledgeable about Australian literature, you will immediately guess that this would have been inspired by Henry Lawson’s classic Australian short story of the same name. And, if you know Leah Purcell, you will know that she’s a First Nations Australian and will realise that the inspiration has taken a specific First Nations perspective. (Check out her Wikipedia page to see just how active she is, and has been, in the Australian cultural scene.)

The film is based on Purcell’s book of the same name, which Lisa has reviewed. I have been interested in Purcell for a couple of decades now, as, well before blogging, I read her 2002 book Black chicks talking. It comprises interviews she did with nine First Nations women, in which she asked them to tell their stories. It was excellent – and, of course, mind-opening – reading. In it, I met other women whose work I have been interested in since, such as Frances Rings, the newly appointed artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre; actor Deborah Mailman; and filmmaker Rachel Perkins.

Purcell knows how to re-package her ideas and creations for different purposes and audiences. She did it with Black chicks talking, for example, and she’s done it with this story. ABC News explains that Purcell, a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman, “first reimagined” Henry Lawson’s short story as an award-winning play, which premiered in the Belvoir St theatre in 2016. Then, in 2019, she turned it into what became a bestselling novel, before producing this movie in 2021. However, as ABC News says,

the journey really began when her mother read Lawson’s short story to her as a five-year-old growing up in Murgon in rural Queensland.

“I was starting to use my imagination and I put myself in that story,” Purcell said. “I was that little boy who was his mother’s protector.”

You can read Lawson’s original story online. It is a classic Aussie bush story of white settler loneliness and courage. But Purcell isn’t the first to have questioned this bush myth. Published in 1896, just four years after Lawson’s story, was Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” (my review). It also features an unnamed bushwoman, struggling to survive with a young child and a frequently absent shearer husband. Unlike Lawson’s wife, however, Baynton’s does not come off well. Baynton’s focus is less the terrors of the bush, and more the issue of male violence. There have been other riffs and reimaginings over the years of Lawson’s story, but let’s now cue Leah Purcell’s which not only picks up the issue of male violence, but also the invisibility of First Nations Australians in our colonial settler literature.

I didn’t see the play, and I haven’t read the novel, so all I can comment on is the film, which she not only wrote, directed and co-produced but also plays the titular role of Molly. It’s a powerful movie that confronts us on multiple levels. Its main characters are Molly, her 12-year-old son Danny, Yadaka, an Aboriginal man on the run from police, and two idealistic English newcomers, Nate Clintoff, who is to be the police officer in the area, and his wife Louisa who is keen to improve the lot of women. Purcell astutely plays with the tropes of the Western genre she grounds her film in, together with the bush pioneer myth and settler society stereotypes, to tell a complex story about, as Lisa says, “domestic violence and rape; the Stolen Generations; frontier violence; and the hidden Black ancestry of many White Australians”. (I couldn’t have said it better myself, so why not quote Lisa!) These issues are explored against the backdrop of settler society ideas of justice, religious righteousness, and a nascent sense of injustice (as reflected through Louisa’s writings and her discussions with Nate).

I was engrossed from the beginning – emotionally by the plight of the woman, and intellectually by what I was watching Purcell doing. She takes the conventions of the Western film and of the bush myth, in which good and bad are simple concepts based on colonial ideas of law and justice, and spins them to tell a very different story in which justice is never simple, particularly when there is inequity in power, between white and black, and between man and woman. Molly is the nexus for both these dichotomies. It’s a lot for one character to carry but it works. Molly is strong, but also vulnerable, and so, while there’s much she can control living out there in the bush, in the end she can’t keep the world in which she lives at bay.

In Yadaka (Rob Collins), Purcell brings to the fore the “stray blackfellow” from Lawson’s original. Not only is he significant in correcting the absence or “othering” of the original inhabitants in settler literature, but, without spoiling too much, he plays a pivotal role in Molly’s development and self-knowledge.

The film is set in the Snowy Mountains, an area I know and love so much. It opens with a dramatic landscape shot dominated by distorted and somewhat grotesque gum trees, which sets the movie’s unsettled tone. We return to this shot later, to mark our return to that point in the narrative. The cinematography is strong with several close low angle shots of Molly conveying her strength and power, and those expansive shots of big skies and wide, spare landscapes so typical of the Western. It’s not subtle, and at times it felt a bit heavy-handed, but overall it did justice to Purcell’s conception.

A strength of the movie is its music. It’s edgy, in a modern way, reflecting Purcell’s modern revisioning, but it includes strains of folk and western music, reminding us of the world in which it is set and the conventions being drawn on.

There was a misstep for me, though, in the handling of Louisa’s crusade against battered women. While there was awareness of the issue – Barbara Baynton, after all, exposed it in her work – Purcell’s handling, including reference to that “whose story is it to tell” issue, felt anachronistic.

However, it is so good seeing Australia’s colonial past being revisited and presented from perspectives that were so silenced at the time. Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife is one of many such stories appearing now. Australia has had a love affair with its past, but that past has, until now, been viewed through distorted lenses. Finally, those lenses are being questioned …

Tessa Wooldridge has also reviewed Purcell’s work.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
Dir: Leah Purcell
Prod: Bunya Productions and Oombarra Productions, 2021

Hail, Caesar: Not a movie review, not really

I go to the movies reasonably regularly and have seen many movies in the last few months. Some impressed me immensely, such as Spotlight and Brooklyn; some I enjoyed a lot with the odd reservation, such as Carol, The Danish Girl and The Belier Family; and others I could see the skill but they left me a little cold, like, say, the beautifully shot Revenant. However, although I’ve reviewed the odd (usually Australian) film in the past, film reviewing is not my thing, so you haven’t heard about them here. But then, a couple of days ago, we saw the Coen Brothers’* latest outing, Hail, Caesar.

I’m not going to review it, either – not really – but I’ve heard such mixed responses that I wanted to offer my two-penny’s worth, which is that it’s fun to watch, particularly if you have any interest in the golden years of Hollywood. The Coens weave their story around a day-or-so-in-the-life-of Mr Mannix, the studio go-to/fix-it man who reports to the studio boss. He looks after the actors, sorts out money problems and potential sticking points, deals with promotion and publicity, troubleshoots, in other words, anything and everything that happens on multiple sets. As he goes about this work, we see the films being made by the studio. There’s the biblical-Ben Hur like epic titled Hail, Caesar; an Esther Williams-like extravaganza; a singing cowboy adventure**; a Gene Kelly Anchors Aweigh style movie; and a British drawing-room drama, not to mention nods to James Dean, Hitchcock, spy-movies, HUAC‘s attack on Hollywood’s communists, and so on.

The Coens and their crew must have had a wonderful time creating vignettes for all these movie genres and styles, because they were, using my best non-review-language, a hoot. Take the drawing-room drama which, at the last minute, has to accept the singing cowboy in its starring role. Now our cowboy, Hobie, is known more for his singing and lassoo work, than his dramatic acting ability. The sentence he has to say in this vignette is the improbable “Would that it ‘twere so simple”. It’s a very funny scene, played beautifully by Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurents and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it’s worth every penny of your ticket when it comes (and not just because it features the inimitable Frances McDormand). There is, too, surely a joke in the title: Hail, Caesar is the title of the biblical epic around which the main plot turns, but Mannix is the Caesar on the lot.

The ensemble cast does a great job, but I do have to admit that when I and my party of movie-goers came out we all felt we’d seen a tribute but we weren’t sure there was much more to it, not like there was in, say, Barton Fink. If I could identify any specific serious point being made it would, perhaps, be about the lack of recognition of screenwriters.

However, perhaps it’s OK for the film not to have a BIG message. Perhaps it simply wants the audience to have fun, to remember the past (not with nostalgia but with a knowing sort of joy). And perhaps, too, the Coens want us to think about what we want from movies and movie-makers? I’m not sure I’ll remember this film long into the future, but I did enjoy it – and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

* I’ve written once before on the Coens – seems like I’m more likely to make an exception for them!

** In one of those strange coincidences, the day before we saw Hail, Caesar, I happened to see an old singing cowboy movie, Gene Autry in Guns and guitars, at the National Film and Sound Archive!

Satellite Boy (Movie review)

It’s disappointing to say the least that the new Australian film, Satellite Boy, is in very limited distribution. It was released 10 days ago, and in my city, with 6 cinema complexes, it is screening in only one. Why? It’s rather an indictment of Australian audiences that such a film is not receiving wider distribution.

Off the soapbox, now, and onto the film. Satellite Boy tells the story of Pete (Cameron Wallaby), who’s around 11 years old and who lives in an abandoned, derelict drive-in cinema on the edge of town with his grandfather, Old Jagamarra (David Gulpilil). His mother has left, but Pete is expecting her back to carry out their plan of turning the cinema into a restaurant. Meanwhile, Old Jagamarra and Pete learn that the land is to be taken over by a mining company, so Pete sets off, on bike, with his friend Kalmain (Joseph Pedley), to change the mining company’s mind. Shortly into what is supposed to be a 2-day ride, they end up on foot, walking through some pretty forbidding country. Pete confidently says to Kalmain:

If you walk country, country will look after you.

East Kimberley landscape

Between Wyndham and Kununurra

Of course, it’s not that simple. The Australian outback is a harsh place, and while indigenous Australians have traditionally lived in it, we know that Pete has not yet learnt enough to survive.  “I’m sick of your stories” he mutters at the beginning of the film as his grandfather tries to pass on knowledge. However, as indigenous director Catriona Mackenzie has said in interviews, Satellite Boy is not a realistic film.

This is an important point because, from a realism point of view, the film has holes. Firstly, for those who like accuracy in fiction, the story’s geography is out of whack. You don’t for example, travel to Kununurra from Wyndham via Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles) National Park. But then the destination is never named, so the geography only fails if you know the region. Not naming places helps McKenzie, who also wrote the script, give the film a mythic or fabular tone – and enables her to focus on country rather than place. The other “hole” is that the film does not confront, with any depth, the conflict between old and new, or the likely ramifications of Pete’s choice. Despite some hints of cultural conflict and dysfunction, particularly in Kalmain’s family, it’s not a gritty film, like, say, Samson and Delilah (my review).

Purnululu (The Bungle Bungles)

Walking in Purnululu (aka The Bungle Bungles)

And so, of course, Pete and Kalmain do make it through, albeit with some scary moments, particularly for Kalmain who doesn’t quite have Pete’s faith or knowledge (or the guiding spirit of a grandfather). Most of the film concerns their journey, which buys into both the picaresque tradition, and the “lost child” motif I’ve written about before. As the boys start to lose their way, moving deeper and deeper into forbidding landscape without food or water, the camera cuts between Pete trying to put into practice his grandfather’s lessons and Old Jagamarra, worrying, and willing them on.

At its heart, the film is a coming-of-age story, indigenous-style. It is about a young man learning about country and having to decide what it means for him. Catriona McKenzie said that

the notion of country from an Aboriginal perspective is that it supports your spirit. It sustains you on a spiritual level, as well as a physical one if you have that understanding. That’s what I was going for.

And is, I think, what she achieved.

I loved David Bridie’s music. It’s evocative and engaging, sometimes playfully toe-tapping as when the boys set off on their journey, other times moodily spiritual as when Old Jagamarra appeals to the sky spirits/ancestors to bring the boys home. That the sky and the Milky Way are important to indigenous Australians’ belief system is made clear in the film’s opening when Old Jagamara sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in language. This significance is reinforced when, a little later, the camera looks up from Pete’s bed to show us the ceiling decorated with star stickers – and again when, during their journey, the boys sleep in a satellite dish cradled between land and sky.

It’s a beautiful film, though also a slow one, which may be one reason why distribution is limited. Mr Gums felt the landscape photography was self-indulgent at times but, given the theme, I felt it was (mostly, anyhow) justified. The performances from the three main characters are excellent – Gulpilil is luminous, and newcomers Wallaby and Pedley are convincing.

The film was shown last year at Toronto International Film Festival. I wonder what that audience made of it. For me, it adds another perspective to the indigenous films that we are starting to see – not as tough as Samson and Delilah, not as joyful as Bran Nue Dae, but nonetheless thoughtful and relevant.

Satellite Boy
Dir: Catriona McKenzie
Prod: Satellite Films, 2012

Goddess (Movie review)

Will I, won’t I, will I, won’t I, has been running around my head over the last week since I saw the recent Australian movie Goddess. In the end I’ve decided, obviously, that I will – will, that is, write a post on it because I do like to raise a little awareness about Australia’s film industry.

Cradle Mountain

Beautiful Tasmania

Whether you like Goddess depends a bit, I think, on your expectations. If you expect a fun romcom you are likely to enjoy it. If, however, you expect a sociological analysis of celebrity culture in the 21st century, as I half-expected based on the line or two advance summary that I’d read, you may not like it. Fortunately for me, my expectations changed to the “right” ones in the opening scene. The film opens with an homage to the film version of The Sound of Music with our heroine standing, arms spread wide, on a high green hill surrounded by mountains in gorgeous Tasmania and ready, we think, to burst into song. She appears to think so too, except she suddenly spies her toddler twins, halfway down the hill, about to chomp into a cowpat  … all thoughts of singing immediately fly out of her head and the film’s tone is established!

Goddess is both romcom and musical comedy. It was adapted from a stage play titled Sinksongs which was written and performed by Joanna Weinberg. The plot concerns a young couple – Elspeth and James – who have moved to Tasmania with their twin toddler sons so that James can follow his dream of protecting and researching whales. The couple have a deal. James will follow his dream until the boys start school, and then he will take over prime childcare while Elspeth has a go at her career which is singing. The trouble is that Elspeth finds life in rural Tasmania with demanding (albeit cute) toddlers and a mostly absent husband a harder “deal” than she’d expected. She receives no support from the local mums (played by comedian Corinne Grant, Pia Miranda, and two others) who do not welcome her into their group. To assuage Elspeth’s loneliness, James buys her a webcam suggesting they can stay in contact that way. Unfortunately, probably due to poor reception out there in the southern Pacific (!), Elspeth can’t raise James but, she suddenly realises, she can put the webcam to another use. She can sing her life to a cybercrowd – and so begin her “sinksongs” performed, yep, from the kitchen sink. The inevitable happens of course. She becomes famous around the world. We see people everywhere tuning in to watch her sing, including, eventually, the local mums. I won’t detail the plot further as you can probably guess its course … one requiring her, in the end, to work out her fame-family priorities.

What makes this movie delightful is not the predictable plot (it is, after all, what it is) but the performances and the music, which ranges from pop to jazz to blues to country to tango. It’s all there as Elspeth is one talented young singing mum. Elspeth is played by someone unknown to me, the English actress Laura Michelle Kelly. She is, not surprisingly, more active in theatre than film. It’s a cliched thing to say, I know, but she lit up the screen with her expressive face, her warmth and her singing-dancing ability. She managed to hit just the right note between vamp and mum, between confidence and uncertainty. James is played sympathetically by Irish pop idol Ronan Keating. Australian comedian Magda Szubanski was entertaining as the “Corporate bitch” Cassandra, while relative newcomer Hugo Johnstone-Burt, from the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series, convinced as her nervously keen but ultimately sensitive right-hand man.

The plot was a little forced in places and there was the odd slapstick moment that made me cringe. There were also picture-perfect shots of Sydney  – the Bridge and the Opera House – that worked, I suppose, for immigrant Elspeth’s visit to the big smoke but that also seemed rather carefully placed to attract foreign audiences. These, though, were minor aberrations in a movie that saw us leaving the cinema smiling.

I seem to have been writing about romance more than usual lately, which is a bit weird as it’s not really my zone of interest, but I’m not sorry. A little break from the usual never does you any harm does it? If you’d like a change from your usual fare and Goddess comes to a theatre near you, give it a go. It may not be the best movie you see this year, but its joie de vivre is infectious.

Dir. Mark Lamprell
Prod. The Film Company and Wildheart Films, 2013

Ruby Sparks (Movie)

English: Zoe Kazan attending the premiere of T...

Zoe Kazan 2011 (Photo credit: David Shankbone, using CC-BY 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Because I am a litblogger not a film blogger, I don’t review all the movies I see. When I do review a movie it is usually an Australian one. However, because of a certain synchronicity and because of its subject matter, I can’t resist writing a little about Ruby Sparks.

The synchronicity comes from Anita Heiss‘ statement at last week’s Canberra Readers’ Festival that the good thing about writing fiction is that “you can create the world you want to live in”. She meant this positively, because she is passionate about creating a world in which indigenous Australians are respected for their culture, for their similarity to non-indigenous Australians and for their diversity. In other words, she wants them to be recognised and valued as equal human beings, which should not be too much to ask. But, what if the world you want is not the world you need?

Ruby Sparks is a a delightful but also clever and thoughtful movie about a young man with writer’s block. Calvin, the writer, had a New York Times bestseller with his first book when he was 19 years old, and was hailed as a genius, but ten years later, as the movie begins, he has not produced anything more beyond some short works. This, however, is not his only problem. He is in therapy – not only because of his writer’s block but because his life is not going well. He lives alone (with his dog Scotty who, in an affront to Calvin’s manliness, pees like a “girl dog”) and has not had a romantic relationship for several years. Enter Ruby – first in what seems to be a dream sequence and then in the park. Who is this Ruby, we wonder? It soon dawns on us that Ruby may not be real, that she may be a figment of his imagination, the product of his pen (or, in this case, his manual typewriter). It starts in fact to feel a little like a Pygmalion story …  and, as we move down that path, we are forced to confront how far a writer’s hubris might take him, because gradually Calvin’s sweet neediness starts to take on another look.

And so the movie progresses, teasing us with the “is she or isn’t she real?” question, and forcing us to examine the implications of want versus need . I’m not going to say anything more about the story, though, for fear of spoiling what is a charming but by no means silly movie. I’ll simply say that the movie explores the potential of its plot with humour and warmth, alongside a little darkness – think power and manipulation – which keeps it grounded. It’s gets a little “tricksy” at times, but not incomprehensibly so. The cast – including the well-known (such as Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas and Elliott Gould) and the lesser-known (namely the romantic leads, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) – do a convincing job. They, particularly Dano and Kazan are, dare I say it, “real” and engaging.

Then, at the end of course, came the credits – which I do like to read. I was delighted to discover another little twist to get our heads around. The script, you see, was written by Zoe Kazan* who plays Ruby who may (or may not be) the product of Calvin’s pen. What is that about art imitating life? (Or, something imitating something, anyhow – my brain is starting to hurt now with the permutations!)

This is not a proper movie review. If it were I’d take the time to talk more about the plot and the role of the other characters; I’d discuss the music (which I loved); and I’d mention the symbolism including the moment when Calivn ditches his typewriter for a laptop.  But, I simply wanted to share a few thoughts about it with people who like to read. If you’re a movie-going reader like me, I recommend you give this film a go … and if you do, come back and tell me what you think. Meanwhile, I wonder what Anita Heiss would think …

* Zoe Kazan has an impressive pedigree. Her grandfather was film director and screenwriter Elia Kazan and her parents are screenwriters.

Wish You Were Here (Movie Review)

Regular readers here know how I love a novella. It occurred to me that feature films that are shorter than 90 mins could be seen as the cinematic equivalent of novellas. At 89 minutes, the recent Australian movie, Wish You Were Here, reminds me a little of a novella. The story is focused, with no digressions into side stories. In other words, the minor characters are there only to serve the purpose of the main story, and not to have lives or stories of their own. And, like a good novella, it doesn’t slow down in the middle but engages you at the beginning and keeps you involved – and guessing – right to the closing credits.

The basic plot concerns a young woman, Steph, and her new boyfriend, Jeremy, deciding to holiday in Cambodia where he has business (hmmm…) dealings. Steph asks her sister Alice, who is pregnant with her third baby, to come along with husband Dave. Initially resistant, Dave is convinced by Alice to have this final fling before their family expands again.  At the end of the week, Jeremy goes missing and the other three return to Sydney, but there are clearly secrets. Some characters, we suspect, know more than they are letting on. Gradually, through current action and flashbacks, the story comes out, with devastating consequences along the way for those involved.

The film has been billed by some as a “psychological thriller” but I wouldn’t call it that. It didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat, but there is mystery, tension and drama.  The production company, Aquarius Films, describes it as a “psychological drama/mystery”. That’s more like it.

As you’d expect, given its plot-line, the film does play to some familiar stereotypes, that of middle-class white Australians enjoying cheap holidays in SE Asia, complete with alcohol and party drugs, and a hint of that darker story of drug smuggling hovering in the background. These are not, however, the story’s target, so the stereotypes work as background or introduction rather than as the main fare. The main target or theme relates to the decisions you make, the things they set in motion, and how you handle things once started. From these spring those bigger universals of love, commitment and forgiveness. In the film, the first critical decision is that of going to Cambodia, and it is followed by some stupid and terrible decisions and actions taken while there. These set in motion behaviours and further decisions that threaten to pull apart what was nicely and economically established at the beginning to be a stable and happy marriage. But, I won’t be more explicit than this to avoid spoilers.

Instead I’ll talk a little about the production. Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price), the two main characters, are convincing and sympathetic (even when you want to give them a shake!) – and their two very young children played by Isabelle Austin-Boyd and Otto Page are stunningly natural. I was intrigued to notice that Felicity Price also co-wrote the script with debut director and husband, Kieran Darcy-Smith.

Stylistically speaking, the film uses techniques that seem popular now: fast cutting, a handheld camera look, and shifting focus. The fast cutting approach worked well to convey the colour and action of a SE Asian holiday. It also helped build up the tension as the implications of what happened started to tell on and derail the characters and their relationships. You do have to concentrate, however, to make sure you don’t miss a step in the narrative sequence or a clue to what is going on. I’m not quite so enamoured, though, of the shifting focus – just as I wasn’t in The Hunter. I was rarely convinced that it made a difference to the impact of the scenes in which it’s used – but maybe that’s just me.

Wish You Were Here was premiered at Sundance this year which is, in itself, a recommendation. And while it didn’t, for me, have quite the punch of Animal Kingdom (which came out of the same Blue Tongue Films stable), its considered exploration of the ramifications of making morally poor (and poor moral!) decisions make it a challenging and engrossing movie. Good novella, this film!

The Hunter (movie)

The Hunter. Daniel Nettheim. Porchlight Films, 2011

Tasmanian Tiger (lithograph)

Lithograph of the Tasmania Tiger, after H. C. Richter's illustration in The Mammals of Australia (Gould) (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

A guilty confession. I hadn’t heard of or read Julia’s Leigh’s apparently highly acclaimed novel, The Hunter, before this recent Australian movie was made. I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it was just child-rearing busy-ness at the time of its publication. Anyhow, the film is now out and I saw it this weekend. It was produced – but not directed – by the same people who made the excellent Animal Kingdom, and its cast includes Willem Dafoe (as “the hunter”), Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor. All actors I am always happy to see. And it was set in our beautiful southern island state, Tasmania.

The basic plot is straightforward. Martin (Dafoe) is a mercenary sent by a biotech company to find and kill a Tasmanian Tiger in order to bring back the necessary biological specimens for, it appears, biological warfare purposes. Now, if you know your Tasmanian history, you’ll know that the Tasmanian Tiger has been officially extinct since 1936 – but, like the Loch Ness Monster, there are always reports of sightings. The story, of course, has complications. The company organises for Dafoe to stay with a widow (well, her husband has been missing for a year) and her two young children who live on the edge of the bush … and from there the mystery thickens somewhat. What did happen to her husband?

The movie tos-and-fros between Dafoe “hunting” in the bush and spending time in the large log house with Sally (O’Connor) and her young daughter and son. Dafoe, established in the opening scene as a task-oriented person who likes cleanliness and order, a loner, arrives at Sally’s cabin to find the children running free, the house dirty and disordered, and the mother out-to-it (from, we soon learn, prescription drugs) in bed. He finds nowhere else in town: the logging-oriented townsfolk mistake him for a “greenie” and are therefore not willing to accommodate him, so he settles into Sally’s house, fixing it up to suit his needs. While doing so, he starts to engage with the two children and then the mother, which doesn’t endear him to Jack (Sam Neill).

This is billed as a thriller, and there certainly is tension. Can he find a Tasmanian Tiger? And do we want him to? What happened to Sally’s husband? Is Jack hiding something? Does Bike (Sally’s son who doesn’t speak) know something? The film doesn’t quite have the sophisticated moral and emotional complexity of Animal Kingdom. It is more a film of archetypes: the hunter who becomes the hunted, the silent child who knows something, the withdrawn grieving wife, and so on. The tension is enhanced by the remote, forbidding landscape, and the cinematography used to convey it. The colours are cold blues and greens, the lighting dark. There is also the sense of menace suggested first by the loggers but then by something less definite, more mysterious. Is it animal or human?

This is a difficult film to review. I enjoyed the movie, but had some reservations. The performances are excellent, particularly the taciturn but expressive Dafoe, and the two children. The pacing is slow, and yet it’s not too long. The cinematography is captivating overall, though I didn’t always like the unsubtle way parts of a scene would move in and out of focus. The soundtrack – the natural sounds in the bush, and Martin’s classics set against Sally’s Springsteen in the domestic scenes – is effective. The plot is perhaps its main problem. The initial set-up – that of expecting to find an extinct animal – needs a major suspension of disbelief, which was not a problem on its own, but the plot is then so tightly managed it was a little difficult in the end to know exactly who had been implicated in what. And this leads, I think, to a confusion of themes.  The logger-environmentalist conflict is introduced but never really developed. Was it there for necessary background*, or for its red herring purposes? There’s a bevy of themes concerning nature and extinct animals versus man, science and corporate greed. These are all touched upon and developed to some degree, but not as strongly as they could be. The overriding theme though is probably Martin’s emotional journey – from an isolated, self-contained man at the beginning to … well, I don’t want to give away the plot, but his character’s development was, though somewhat predictable in that archetypal way, nicely and movingly done.

Having seen the film, I’d rather like to read the book – to see how I would interpret the characters, plot and themes. In the meantime, I would recommend the film … it may not be perfect but it has plenty to recommend it and is well worth the price of a ticket.

* For more on why this could be so, see my review of Into the woods.

Red Dog (Movie and Book)

Pilbara landscape

Pilbara landscape

First, the disclaimer: I’m a dog person and am therefore a sucker for stories about dogs and their loyalty. I know, I know, it’s their nature, but that doesn’t stop me crying over doggie devotion stories. Red Dog is one of these! If dogs don’t move you, you may not want to see this film, but that would be a shame because while the dog – and it is based on a real dog – is the central idea, the film, and novel from which it draws, are about more than “just” a dog and his devotion to a master.

I first came across Red Dog – the (apparently famous) Pilbara Wanderer – several years ago through Louis de Bernières‘ novella (of sorts) which was first published in 2001. It’s a slim little tome and is based on stories de Bernières gathered about the dog, who lived from 1971 to 1979. De Bernières claims in his Author’s Note that the stories “are all based upon what really happened” to the dog but that he invented all of the characters, partly because he knew little about the people in Red Dog’s life and partly because he did not want to offend people by misrepresenting them. John though, he says, is “real”.

There is a simple plot in the book – it tells how Red Dog decides on John as his master and it then chronicles Red Dog’s various adventures in the mining communities of the Pilbara. The film follows de Bernières’ book pretty closely, though it takes a little artistic license, including adding a romance into the mix.

The story – and the film – is set in the Pilbara, the red earth country of Western Australia where mining is the main industry. It was – particularly back in the 1970s – a male dominated place and the workers at that time were mostly migrants:

It was lucky for him [Red Dog] that the town [Dampier] was so full of lonely men … They were either rootless or uprooted. They were from Poland, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, Greece,  England, Yugoslavia and from other parts of Australia too. … Some were rough and some gentle, some were honest and some not. There were those who got rowdy and drunk, and picked fights, there were those who were quiet and sad,  and there were those who told jokes and could be happy anywhere at all. With no women to keep an eye on them, they easily turned into eccentrics.

And it is this* that the film, directed by Kriv Stenders, does so well … capturing men’s lives in a male dominated environment, against the backdrop of the starkly beautiful Pilbara. The cinematography is gorgeous, setting the region’s natural beauty against the ugliness (or beauty, depending on your point of view) of a mining environment. The music is what you’d expect, mostly 70s rock including, of course, Daddy Cool, but is appropriate rather than clichéd. And the dog is played by 6-year old Koko with aplomb!

The central story concerns John (Josh Lucas), Red Dog and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but there are other smaller “stories” – the publican (Noah Taylor) and his wife, the Italian (Arthur Angel) who can’t stop talking about his beautiful home town, the brawny he-man (John Batchelor) who knits in secret, the miserly caravan park owners, to name just a few. Their stories are slightly exaggerated, and there is fairly frequent use of slightly low angle close-ups that give an almost, but not quite, cartoonish larger-than-life look to the scenes. These all work effectively to convey something rather authentic about character and place.

That said, occasionally the humour is too broad and the script a little clumsy – but these are minor. Overall, the film keeps moving at a pace that ensures it never gets bogged down in too much sentiment or romance or adventure or comedy. In other words, it’s not a perfect movie and yet it perfectly captures the resilient, egalitarian spirit of those people in that time. It’s a film I’d happily, if somewhat tearily, see again.

Louis de Bernières
Red dog
London: Vintage, 2002
ISBN: 9780099429043

*POSTSCRIPT: I quoted this passage from the book for a reason, and then got carried away on another point, but Kate’s comment below reminded me of what that reason was: it was of course to refer to Red Dog’s role in this male dominated environment. Not only does he symbolise the men’s independence and spirit of adventure that brought them to the Pilbara, but he also provides an outlet for their affection. Through this, he forges a community out of a bunch of individuals. As the publican says at the beginning of the film, it’s not so much what Red Dog did as who he was …

Monday musings on Australian literature: The King’s Speech (Movie)

His Majesty King George VI of the United Kingdom.

King George VI, c. 1942 (Presumed Public Domain: From the United Nations Information Office, via Wikipedia)

I wasn’t going to review The King’s Speech, the current biopic about how Lionel Logue helped cure George VI‘s stuttering, because I mostly review Australian films. But, I do like a biopic and this film does have some Australian connections. These connections may not be particularly literary but, what the heck, at least one of the connections does relate to language … and so I’ve decided to make the review my first Monday musings of 2011.

Like most who’ve seen this film, I was engaged by it and would happily see it again to further explore its subtleties and nuances. Of course it helps that it stars Colin Firth. Anyone who has played Mr Darcy as well as he did is a friend of mine! And, it stars other actors from that wonderful 1995 miniseries of Pride and prejudice: Jennifer Ehle (Lizzie Bennet then, Myrtle Logue now) and David Bamber (Mr Collins then, a theatrical producer now). In addition, its actors include some Australians, including Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue and Guy Pearce as David, the abdicating King Edward VIII. And, let’s not forget the often underappreciated Helena Bonham Carter who plays George VI’s wife (later to become the much beloved Queen Mum). (Did you know that Helena’s distant cousin, Crispin, played Mr Bingley in the Firth-Ehle Pride and prejudice? Oh, the tangled webs!)

Now, I’m no expert in the history of George VI. I knew he was a shy man who did not want the monarchy; I knew he was a very popular monarch; and I was vaguely aware that he had stammered. I knew, however, absolutely nothing about the role an Australian played in the management (cure?) of this stammer. Consequently, I’m not going to comment, as I believe some others have done, on the veracity of the film. It is a biopic after all. Rather, I’ll just mention a couple of issues.

One relates to the fact that it was an Australian who helped George (Bertie to his family). At the time, the 1920s-1940s, Australians were very much seen as the “colonials” and not, really, as people who could teach the Brits anything. In the film this is portrayed pretty clearly through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s (played by another British acting great, Derek Jacobi) disdain for Logue and his lack of formal credentials, despite the successes he had already achieved with Bertie. I was tickled by the subtle way the film conveyed this little part of the history between our two nations. The tension between the two men is not subtle, but this particular subtext is.

The other issue has nothing to do with Australia, but is related to the film’s very effective sound design. First though, let’s talk Colin Firth. Can you imagine being an actor playing someone who can’t speak? What a challenge, but Firth pulls it off. The film is not afraid to let time drag when Bertie/George tries to speak. It lets the clicks and stutters reverberate as he struggles to get a word out . It’s excruciating – and is sustained just to the point at which we feel his pain and that of those around him but are not irritated by it. The score underpinning the movie is pretty spot on too – lovely original music combined with well-known music (particularly by Mozart and Beethoven). But, here’s my issue. I was intrigued by the use of a favourite piece of mine, the first movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, to background the King’s first war-time speech. Beethoven? For a speech about a second war with the Germans? That was to me weird … Was it intended to be ironic in some way? The King’s triumphant speech set against the reality of what was to come?

Whatever, it’s an engaging film which not only tells a specific story about English royalty, but is also about universals: perseverance and hard work (the King’s in overcoming his speech problem), supporting, encouraging and standing by the one you love (his wife), and the value of experience and ingenuity over paper qualifications (Logue).

If you haven’t seen it yet, do … and tell them an Australian sent you!

Books into films

‘Do you mind what they did to your book?’
‘Well, they can’t do anything to my book. They can’t alter a single comma … ‘

I came across the above in an article about P. D. James‘ in the September issue of goodreading magazine. The discussion relates to her non-crime novel The children of men which was adapted into film. What a great response I thought, because …

Pride and Prejudice (1940 film)

1940 film adaptation (Image via Wikipedia - Presumed public domain?)

I tend to take a pretty relaxed view towards adaptations. I see books and films as completely different media. Rather than expect the film to replicate the book, I like to see how the filmmaker has interpreted it. These are the questions I ask myself:

  • First: Did I enjoy the film as a film? Did I like the story? Did I like the way it was acted, directed, photographed, scripted? What did it “say” to me? Did it move and/or entertain me?
  • And then, if I’ve read the book, I think about the filmmakers’ interpretation. What was their take on it? Did it accord with mine? If it didn’t accord with mine, was it an interesting take? Was it a valid take?

And so, for example, I am one of the few Jane Austen fans who likes Patricia Rozema‘s Mansfield Park. Her Fanny is certainly not the Fanny of the book, but she is an interesting creation nonetheless and, as I see it, an attempt by Rozema to “update” her and to invest her more clearly with the strength of mind that she clearly has but that many readers lose because her “issues” (such as not taking part in the play) seem “wimpy” to modern eyes.  (This is not the only point of difference in the film, but discussing these is not the point of my post).

A poster on the Ellen and Jim blog has attempted a “classification” of film adaptations, using Jane Austen as an example. Here it is:

  • Close (or faithful) adaptations (such as the Pride and Prejudice film, 1995, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), meaning “literal transposition of plot hinge-points, keeping most major characters, important crises, dialogue, themes”;
  • Intermediate (or analogous) adaptations (such as Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, 1999), in which “the film-makers drop hinge-points or characters, change enunciations, and alter the book’s themes, even radically”; and
  • Free (or loose) adaptations (such as Clueless, 1995), meaning “a transposition into modern or other era terms which keeps only enough idiosyncratic elements of the major story and characters to be recognizably partly derived from the book”.

You will know my approach to adaptations when I say I enjoyed all three examples I selected above – which is not the same as saying that I think all adaptations work. I was less enamoured, for example, of the 2007 ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park. It had the unfortunate effect of making me laugh – at the wrong time for the wrong reasons – and its plot changes did not seem to me to enhance the themes.

Further on in the Ellen and Jim blog post is this from John le Carré on the adaptation of his The Constant Gardener:

the job of the movie … is to take the minimum intention of the novel and illustrate it with the maximum of freedom in movie language in movie grammar.

That sounds very reasonable to me, but now I wonder about you, as I know a few readers here are keen moviegoers. What makes a successful adaptation to you? How important is fidelity – however you define that – to you? And, if you like, what are some of your favourite adaptations?