Australia has long been a hotbed for emerging film-talent, from George Miller and Mel Gibson with Mad Max, all the way to boys behind the Saw series and thanks to the recent documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation, the world of Australian B-movies from the 1970s and 80s are getting some well-deserved love. With the interest in Australian cinema on the rise I offer up five fills from the land down under, in no particular order, that are essential viewing for any film fan.
Rabbit-Proof Fence, Dir. by Phillip Noyce
White-Australian’s have had a rather anxious history with their indigenous population, taking various actions against them, including the relocation of aboriginal children from their parents to education centers, ostensibly to protect the children but with the true intent of eradicating the aborigines by breeding them out of existence. It is this program which serves as the foundation of Rabbit-Proof Fence.
When a trio of young girls, Molly, Gracie and Daisy, are sent to a camp run by Kenneth Brannagh, none of the three have any intention of staying. Instead they escape and set off on foot, following the 1500 mile long rabbit-proof fence across the desert to home. Along the way they are pursued by Brannagh’s underlings, aboriginal trackers and law enforcement but in the end two of the three manage to elude authorities and are reunited with their mothers.
Given the subject matter of the film, race relations, Rabbit-Proof Fence is quite a change of pace for director Noyce. After breaking through with Dead Calm in 1989 he took the Hollywood route and spent a decade directing big-budget blockbusters like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. In 2002, though, his work took a decidedly-political turn with the one-two punch of The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence. That he chose to tackle a subject of some controversy in his home country took bravery, but that he also made it approachable and universal took real skill. While he may not receive the accolades in America that some of his compatriots have – such as Peter Weir – he is clearly a force of Australian cinema.
Walkabout, dir. by Nicolas Roeg
Before he was a director, Nicolas Roeg was a cinematographer, contributing to such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. Serving as his own cinematographer on Walkabout, his background serves him well. In telling the story he composes an endless array of arresting and hypnotic images in the way that would come to define his entire oeuvre.
Walkabout, Roeg’s first solo effort as a director, tells the story of a girl (Jenny Agutter) and her brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son), who are left to wander alone in the Australian desert after their father sets fire to their car and shoots himself. With no food or water they wander around, facing certain death, until an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) appears and though they speak different languages he guides the pair to safety. Though the story would have a tragic outcome for the aboriginal boy, it is a touching movie about the yearning to return to the carefree times in life.
Though technically a British film, with its British director and stars, the film is treated here as an Australian film for the fact that it is set in that country and, like Rabbit-Proof Fence, explores the morally complicated conflict between the modern and the aboriginal world. One its own terms the film is mesmerizing and timeless, but it is the political underpinnings that give the film real depth.
Romper Stomper, dir. by Geoffrey Wright
Before he became the Oscar-winning, phone-throwing, movie-star Russell Crowe, he was just another struggling actor bouncing between the stage and Australian television. In 1990, though, Crowe broke through, garnering an Australian Film Institute nomination for best actor for his first film, The Crossing, following that up a year later with a victory in the Supporting Actor category before finally, in 1992, taking the Best Actor award for the film that carried him beyond the Australian continent.
Romper Stomper is about a pair of neo-Nazi skinheads, the aggressive-id Hando (Russell Crowe) and the much more thoughtful Davey (the late Daniel Pollock) and their triangular relationship with a drug addicted woman, Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie). After battling with a Vietnamese gang Hando’s and Davey and the rest of their group go into hiding, though a police raid the pair, plus Gabrielle, on the run. Though Hando hardly cares about the girl it is her influence on Davey that drives the story, all the way to its tragic conclusion..
Gritty and set to an intense score, Romper Stomper lacks much of the polish of the films we’ve been accustomed to seeing Crowe working in, but it still remains a powerful showcase for the young Crowe. Even as a young man he possessed all the intensity, charm and danger that the world would soon become familiar with. It’s little wonder he won the Australian Film Institute award for Best Actor for this film and because it propelled him to bigger and better things, Romper Stomper is essential viewing for any of his fans.
Breaker Morant, dir. by Bruce Beresford
During the Second Boer War, three Australian Army officers, ‘Breaker’ Morant (Edward Woodward), Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are tried for the murder of Boer prisoners and a German missionary. Though the officers may have been acting under orders, and though they believed the missionary was a spy, the trial proves to largely be a sham and despite their best defense, the Army is determined to have a guilty verdict for political reasons.
Breaker Morant is a complicated film, not in structure or understanding, but in the moral truths it questions, particularly about the costs of diplomacy, the right to justice, and the insanity of war. Inevitably it sets up Morant and his men as martyrs to the high command, who will use the verdict and executions to achieve peace, but Morant is not nearly so innocent as that. Ably portrayed by Edward Woodward, best known to Americans as The Equalizer, and to horror fans from The Wicker Man, ‘Breaker’ Morant is a complex, proud and resilient man who has learned that sometimes there are things in life you cannot change.
Prior to ‘Breaker’ Morant, director Bruce Beresford was unknown in America, and afterwards he remained so, despite having directed a number of well-known films, including Driving Miss Daisy. Perhaps the reason he is overlooks has to do with his a subtle, deft and unpretentious touch with the camera, preferring to let the tension build through the actions of the actors, or perhaps he simply shuns the spotlight. Whatever it is, this film is essential viewing not simply for his direction but also for learning about a period of time unfamiliar to most Americans.
Dead Calm, dir. by Phillip Noyce
Before 1989, nobody outside of Australia had ever heard of Nicole Kidman. Until then she’d had a few roles on Australian television and in some films, but it wasn’t until she starred in Dead Calm that she began to make a name for herself off the continent, leading to roles in Days of Thunder and as wife to Tom Cruise.
After the death of their only child John (Sam Neill) and Rae (Nicole Kidman), set sail on their yacht, hoping this will allow Rae to cope with the loss. While at sea they encounter Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane) who they pull out of a dinghy. Hughie tells a story of a sinking boat, a dead crew and salmonella poisoning. John, though, is distrustful, and after he visits the other vessel he confirms what he suspected all along: murder.
Dead Calm is a tidy little thriller and though it takes place in two settings – two yachts – the cramped surroundings never bore but serve the story well, giving a true sense of claustrophobia. The tension is heightened throughout by Hughie’s mood swings, Rae’s attempts to overcome her brittle-emotions to outsmart Hughie and the constant sight of John aboard a sinking ship. There is hardly a false-note in the film until the slasher-like movie ending but even so, it this misstep can be forgiven and we can instead focus on exactly why Nicole Kidman has gone on to be one of the biggest stars on the planet.