Samson and Delilah (Australia, 2009)

Desperate

Warwick Thornton’s second film as director, Sweet Country, blew me away so I had to catch up with this, his debut. In some ways it is less ambitious, which is to be expected in a low-budget, small crew venture but in others, particularly its lack of narrative drive, it is pushing the audience more. Sweet Country had stars; Samson and Delilah has nobodies: I don’t mean that negatively. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who play the eponymous roles (Aboriginal youths) who have no future, were unknowns when they made the film. They are both superb as people who are, in effect, ‘nobodies’: they are stuck in a dead-end community, near Alice Springs; he’s addicted to sniffing petroleum and she has to look after her ailing grandma. The latter makes ‘Aboriginal art’ which is sold for $200 and, as Delilah finds later, is priced a hundred times more in a chic shop.

Samson is almost mute, a melodramatic way of dramatising his lack of power in Australian society. Even his brother, who plays guitar in a band on the porch for no audience, refuses to let him join in. The one time Samson gets hold of the instrument he plays a raucous ‘screaming guitar’ and smiles: violence ensues. It’s not so much a dead end as a hell.

Thornton shows us this dispassionately. He doesn’t go out of his way to get the audience to sympathise with the plight of the protagonists. There are a couple of shocking moments which are shown and then the narrative moves on emphasising that terrible things are quotidian for these people and we understand the resilience of the characters. I mention melodrama, and that’s the genre it would fit into most, however it doesn’t do so comfortably as its observational camera ensures understatement. Yet as the narrative focus is on the relationship of the eponymous characters and, to a lesser extent, their families, melodrama is present. As noted above, there are demands on the viewer (not a lot happens quickly) which also places it firmly in arthouse territory.

As in Sweet Country, Thornton is his own cinematographer (he also shot the hit The Sapphires, Australia, 2012), and he captures the stark beauty of the landscape. There is an Otherness (to my western eyes) to the Australian Bush, as there is to how Aborigines are represented; is that because their culture is so ‘alien’ to western ‘rationality’ or is it merely an example of the exotic for jaded palettes? It could be both, the under-representation of Aborigines is, of course, part of the issue but Warwick Thornton is doing his best to change that. He’s currently working on the second season of Mystery Road, a detective thriller set in the Outback; the first season was excellent.

Sweet Country (Australia, 2017)

Sour

My intention is to watch films ‘blind’; not with my eyes shut but with as few preconceptions as possible. I try to pick up a vibe as to whether the film is worth seeing and then take it for what it offers me. After watching the brilliant Sweet Country I was surprised to see it described as a Western. Was I simply not seeing the genre signifiers or was it, as director Warwick Thornton had encouraged the idea the film was of that genre for marketing purposes, seen as a Western because the idea was planted in the spectator’s mind? Of course now I see how it could be read as a Western, but for me the racial aspect of the narrative was the key framework. Although American Westerns did deal with race (particularly the ‘revisionist’ ones of the ’70s) the indentured slave relationship that Aboriginals had at the time of the film (1920s) was absent. Other than being co-opted as scouts, Native Americans were not portrayed as being part of white man’s colonial society. Hence, I think it is better not to read the film as a Western; Roy Stafford has some interesting remarks on the issue.

Such is the complexity of reading texts and I make no claim that my ‘innocent eyes’ are any better than those steeped in preconceptions. A reading of the film as a Western would no doubt reveal things I have missed.

To an extent the narrative, the racism against Aborigines in Australia, is full of familiar tropes; Rabbit Proof Fence is one powerful example. That’s not to say the message that colonialism is evil is one that shouldn’t be retold as often as possible, just that different ways of telling the tale are needed. No doubt that the fact Thornton is Aboriginal, as is one of the scriptwriters (and sound recordist) David Tranter, ensures we get a new perspective because BAME groups remain marginalised. I particularly liked the use of flashbacks and flashforwards, which often operate as an expressionist manifestation of a character’s state of mind; for example, the veteran suffering from PTSD is shown in mental torment. Incidentally, the film is based on a true story related to Tranter by his granddad.

Sweet Country abounds with brilliant cinematography, also by Thornton, who shows an area he knows well, around Alice Springs, in a wide variety of often awesome landscapes. Veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown add heft but theirs are minor parts and the central characters, played by newcomers Hamilton Morris and Shanika Cole, are absolutely riveting in their roles.

Probably my least favourite scene in cinema is the ‘courtroom’, but even that is gripping in this film. Cole’s Lucy is called to testify and her painful inability to speak is a testament to the marginalisation of people who are Aboriginal and female. It also shows the subtlety of Thornton’s direction: almost unnoticed at the edge of the frame, and then in the background, the only two white female characters quietly leave the scene when they sense it is going to get nasty. Rarely has boozy ‘incel’ (there are understandably very few women about), male culture been represented so well: ‘toxic masculinity’ doesn’t cover it.

I need to catch up with Thornton’s debut, Samson & Delilah (Australia, 2009), and hope he gets to direct another film soon.

Judy & Punch (Australia, 2019)

Punch through the looking glass

It’s an interesting tradition, the Punch and Judy puppet show, based as it is on violence, particularly domestic violence against women. Interesting because it became popular and, during my childhood at least, was regarded as fun for children. I loved it and ensured my kids had the opportunity to see it, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to encourage violence but I wonder why such an anarchic figure as Punch came to be regarded as fare for children. He is a Trickster character, a necessary antidote to anodyne bourgeois values I suppose. However, we cannot ignore the violence against women which, for some, is a trope of masculinity.

Actor Mirrah Foulkes’s directorial debut, she also scripted, is a feminist take on the tale and, as such, is somewhat predictable but nonetheless welcome. If Mia Wasikowska, an actor I find a bit bland, lacks mischievousness, Damon Herriman’s Punch portrays the misrule inherent in the character well with added male self-pity and self-justification. Foulkes has wisely set the film in an unreal space, a village called Seaside, nowhere near the seaside but that’s where Punch & Judy puppet shows are most likely to be seen these days. The cast sport a mix of accents, Herriman’s is Irish and there are Australian twangs; no doubt late 18th century Australia was full of such eclecticism, but as Foulke’s is quoted as saying in the press kit:

[she] never imagined the film to be period strict, but rather “Totally other-worldly; I wasn’t interested in being bound by period. So I thought let’s see what we can find in Australia and just lean into the weirdness of that.”

So although the film was shot in Australia it isn’t set there. The postmodern elements of the setting are reinforced by what sounds like ‘Moog plays Bach’ on the soundtrack, which I think had some popularity in the 1970s. The first time the music appears it seems to be accompanying the puppet show though it soon becomes clear it is non-diegetic (not part of the narrative world).

I mentioned the narrative was predictable and I don’t think Foulkes was interested in adding complexity though it is a tribute to the filmmakers that the ending’s plea for the acceptance of difference works even if the righteous sentiments are a bit obvious. The anarchic humour is retained and there cannot be many films were the slapstick is combined with the death of a baby. As much as anything, Judy & Punch is a Grand Guignol narrative; I found it a difficult film to categorise.

Tom Budge does plenty with his role as Mr. Frankly, the insidious opinion-maker in village. Budge manages to convey the character’s insecure obsequiousness overlaying a vicious tendency (it reminded of Rik Mayall’s brilliant manifestation of a Tory MP, Alan B’stard).

Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia, 2018)

Too insubstantial for the tragedy?

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

Goldstone (Australia, 2016)

The dead eyes of the heartless soul consider Aaron Pedersen’s detective

Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver (above), keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.

Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.

The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age; not just in Australia.

Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, he is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.

Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.

Lion (Aus-US-UK, 2016)

lionfilm17a

Lost

About half way through Lion, which tells the astonishing tale of how a foundling finds his mum despite being brought up in a different continent, I wondered what the film was going to say. It was brilliantly done: the direction from Garth Davis (his first feature) is highly promising and the young Saroo (who’s 5 years old ) gets an amazing performance from Sunny Pawar. But the film lacked a focus as it didn’t seem to adding anything to my understanding of the world. The last third of the film filled that absence and spoilers follow.

Davis, with the editor Alexandre de Franceschi, links the two worlds – of India and Tasmania – with great skill. Close ups of the protagonists in crowds emphasises the anonymity and massive populations of cities showing how miraculous it would be for Saroo to be reunited with his mother. When, as an adult, he is having a ‘nervous breakdown’ the editing serves to illustrate his memories with graphic (the composition in the frame) and content matches between where he is and the past he is remembering. For example, when he breaks with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara brilliant in a necessarily somewhat passive role of the female encouraging the man) Saroo walks across a bridge (a melodramatic emblem for transition in life) which is matched with a shot of the young Saroo on a bridge. It is a very effective way of dramatizing how memories, which he struggles to recover, can overwhelm  after they’d been triggered in a Proustian moment set off by food.

Although it is well done, Saroo’s breakdown did cause the narrative to sag and it struck me that this might be a consequence of the difficulties film has of dramatizing small events that encompass a lot of time. Conventionally, as it is here, montage is used to signify this however because screen time is inevitably much shorter than narrative time, it is difficult to emotionally understand the profound mental trauma Saroo, now in his late twenties, was experiencing. A paragraph in a book could convey this much better I suspect.

Despite this the film does convincingly demonstrate the strength of familial ties. Even though he’d only been five when he’d lost his family it is clear that Saroo will forever be missing a part of himself if he can’t find them again. Unsurprisingly the reunion is extremely emotional and Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose (mum) are exceptional in the scene.

Nicole Kidman must also be mentioned as she is at her brilliant best here as Saroo’s adoptive mum. It is difficult for a star with Kidman’s charisma to convincingly play an ‘ordinary person’ however she does it brilliantly and then we realise that Sue Brierley is anything but ordinary.