It’s incredible that two of the greatest Australian films – Walkabout and Wake in Fright – were both released in 1971. What a year it must have been, for those who were alive and cinema-goers. Both films are ambitious explorations of Australian identity directed by non-Australians. I watched Walkabout for the first time this week after watching Wake in Fright last month. Walkabout is truly astonishing, a film that is visually captivating, engrossing as a narrative, complex, and still so fresh over forty years later. Continue reading
I’ve finally watched the great Australian film, Wake In Fright (1970). It’s the story of a school-teacher’s descent into a hell of drinking, gambling, and violence when he gets stuck at an outback town called the Yabba on his way back to Sydney. The brutality of the characters’ dissipation is matched by the beauty of the film-making, each scene, each shot so well-composed to capture the landscape, the drama, the horror. Watching it in stops and starts over a week as I fed my newborn son, I was acutely aware of its achievements at a micro-level.
It’s such an ambitious film. It successfully attempts to depict the dark side of the Australian psyche. Aboriginals hover at the edge of several shots, never speaking. The orgy of gambling stops only for a surreal moment’s silence to remember the fallen Anzacs. The only crime is to refuse a beer with a bloke.
It’s unthinkable that this film was out of circulation for years, considered lost until the discovery of a print in a discard bin and its splendid restoration for its 2009 re-release.
The Water Diviner starts promisingly, showing the final day of the Gallipoli campaign from the Turkish perspective as they charge the enemy trenches only to find the Australians retreating. In a time of much jingoism, we need to be reminded of the humanity of the ‘enemy’, and the strength of this film is that this is one of its major themes.
Unfortunately, it has a kernel of interesting drama wrapped up in ridiculous action-heroics, at times degenerating into Indiana Jones. Russell Crowe plays an Australian farmer, Joshua Connor, arriving in Turkey after World War One to bring back the bodies of his three sons. It paints Turkey by numbers, with an obligatory chase through a crowded market and a chase across rooftops (oh! it makes me groan to think of it), and even a massacre of an entire trainload of people, with the exception of Connor and his new Turkish friend, Major Hasan. It’s a film which overplays almost every scene, and neglects all the potential for adult drama. The difficult reconciliation between the Australian Connor and the Turkish Hasan is overshadowed by them being caught up in a new war with the Greeks. (It may be a historically plausible detail; that doesn’t make it a good plot decision.) In a rather mystical moment, Connor locates the bodies of his sons with his water divining skills. At this point one begins to wonder if he actually is a superhero in disguise. The mystery of the fate of the third son is under-explored and rushed through at the end. Again and again, it is a film which veers awkwardly between an attempt at adult drama, an action movie, and a romance.
It feels like a film financed by Channel Seven with James Packer as an executive producer… oh wait, it is! It’s a crowd-pleaser, and many will go away cheering. I do think it’s better that they cheer this, an Australian production with important themes, than an American equivalent.
Home Song Stories is writer-director Tony Ayres’ personal excorcism of his troubled childhood with his selfish mother, a fading nightclub singer who constantly sought out new men to admire her and excite her. At the end of the film, the narrator says that he and his sister don’t talk about their mother; they don’t know what to say. Maybe this film will make up for that.
It seems the story is very close to real events, with some minor changes – like moving the action from Perth to Melbourne. It seems that Screenwest just didn’t have enough money to fund this film beyond scripting! They should be funding lots of feature films – it’s the major art form of our time.
I’m guessing Arts Victoria stepped in with some money, on the condition that the action be moved to Melbourne. As a Western Australian, that makes me disappointed – we lose another one of our stories.
If you visit the Metro Cemeteries Board you can see the burial records for both Tony Ayres’ mother, Sue, and his stepfather, Bill Ayres (‘Uncle Bill’). Apparently she killed herself in their flat in Applecross. I think I’ll always think of her now if I’m driving along Canning Highway. What a sad story.