Category: Australian Cinema

The Railway Man (Australia/UK 2013)

The young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) when he first arrives at the railway camp.

The young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) when he first arrives at the railway camp.

The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.

Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.

The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.

The older Lomax (Colin Firth) with Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) one of the other survivors of the camp.

The older Lomax (Colin Firth) with Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) one of the other survivors of the camp.

I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.

Colin Firth with Nicole Kidman (as Patti Lomax)

Colin Firth with Nicole Kidman (as Patti Lomax)

My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.

On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Alexander England as the English cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Alexander England as the England cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).

My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground  in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.

Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.

PackerDVDThe second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.

I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.

Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012)

Lore

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and her siblings with Thomas (Kai Molina) in the background. (Image courtesy Artificial Eye)

It’s only March but here is one of the films of the year in the UK. Lore is a profoundly German story based on a British novel and brought to the screen by Australian director Cate Shortland with a German cast and a mixed Australian/German crew. The film was shot across various locations in Germany by the Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw using Super 16mm. Dialogue is in German with English subtitles.

Rachel Seifert’s novel The Dark Room (2001) comprises three separate stories each of which refers to the impact of the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany on the personal lives of young characters. ‘Lore’ (short for Hannelore) is one of the three stories/characters. Ms Seifert wrote the stories when she was still relatively young, attracting immediate attention and a Booker nomination. Her parents are German and Australian and this resonated with Cate Shortland who is married to a German. Shortland wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, a film and TV writer with experience of stories about children.

Lore is older in the film than in the book as far as I can see. I think she is 16 in the film, though she appears both older and younger in this powerful story. It begins in May 1945 at the end of the war in Germany. Lore is the eldest of five children and her father, a German officer, has returned from the East. The family must flee as the Russians are coming from the East and the Americans from the West. The family reach a country house in Southern Germany, but first the father and then the mother effectively disappear, taken by, or surrendering to, American forces. Lore is left with the responsibility of taking her siblings, including a baby, across defeated Germany, through difficult terrain and across the zones controlled by American, Russian and British troops to her grandmother’s house on an isolated part of the North Sea coast. I’m not sure that geographical accuracy is a crucial element of the journey, but we know that it is a long way and that it is a difficult journey. Not surprisingly Lore learns a lot about herself on the journey. Her younger sister and the twin 8 year-old boys are not really able to help her much.

Lore begins her journey as the daughter of a leading Nazi soldier and the one ‘friend’ she makes on the journey is ‘Thomas’, a young man who might be Jewish. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t refer to specific events, but Lore is forced to confront many difficult questions and she is a changed young woman who arrives at grandmother Omi’s house. Powerful filmmaking like this depends on both great direction and performances. Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Molina are excellent, the casting throughout works very well and especially for the group of children who are the main focus for much of the film. The Press Book (available from the Artificial Eye website) gives some useful background on how the film was made. Much of it was shot in Eastern Germany with ruined houses and landscapes of forests and meadows beautifully presented. The cinematography adds to this with its soft textures in Super 16 and the light and mists of morning and the gloom of forests. The press images don’t really do justice to the landscape and mise en scène of the interiors but the official trailer gives glimpses.

I found this imagery and also elements of the story made me think of other films, for example Katalin Varga  another film in which a mother and son take a journey across the landscapes of Transylvania. After the screening, discussing the film with a friend, we both thought of the German concept of ‘Heimat’ that almost indefinable sense of a German attachment to ‘home’/’homeland’. Edgar Reitz made a famous series of films under the title of Heimat from 1984 onwards and indeed there is a genre of German cinema called Heimatfilm which was important in the early 1950s in particular – often set around rural communities with a focus on landscape and folkloric traditions. Heimat was a concept that encapsulated ideas about identity that were corrupted by Nazi ideology in relation to ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Aryan purity’. In that sense, Lore is an anti-Heimatfilm that explores the breakdown of such links and the experiences of young characters brought up within a Nazi family and now facing postwar reality. There is also a German film genre known as Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, a kind of German film noir focusing on the dramas of lives in the rubble of German cities in the immediate post-war years. Most of them were made between 1946 and 1949. The most famous of these in international cinema is ironically a film made by Roberto Rossellini, Germany Year Zero (Italy 1948). As the entry in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema (ed. Ginette Vincendeau, 1995) points out, these films often featured narratives in which the legacy of Nazi ideology played a significant role. Those made in the DDR (East Germany) had specific anti-fascist messages, e.g.  The Murderers Are Amongst Us (DDR, 1946). In this context, Lore is a kind of modern version of a rural Trümmerfilme. The film narrative is not ‘resolved’ as such but we are clear that there must have been many teenagers like Lore who grew up in a domestic sphere, confident about their own future only to find themselves confronted with a very different world.

Lore‘s success in only limited distribution has prompted the British Film Institute to award the first funding offer under the new ‘Sleeper’ strand of its Distribution funding screen. £40,000 is available to help Artificial Eye to release the film in ten further cinemas. This funding is only available to distributors who are ‘invited’ to receive it because the film has had good reviews and good box office response on opening. This ‘responsive funding’ is now easier to make work with digital distribution since copies of new ‘prints’ are much easier and cheaper to get to cinemas. However, it is still the case that there aren’t enough screens on which to show films like this. So, please watch out for Lore coming your way – it’s a film not be missed!

The Sapphires (Australia 2012)

(from left) Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens)

I thought I would enjoy this movie and I did. What I hadn’t expected was just how emotional it would be and how rooted in the experience of the filmmakers. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable films of the year. This makes it even more distressing to see some of the inane comments on IMDB and some of the bland (even if generally favourable) reviews in the UK. So let’s be clear, this is an Australian movie from Goalpost Pictures, adapted from a stage play based on a real story about an Aboriginal girl group from the 1960s which toured Vietnam entertaining American soldiers – in itself interesting since Australian forces also fought in Vietnam. The attraction was that the women were playing to African-American troops and this is a film as much about racism in Australia as it is about ‘sweet soul music’. The Weinstein Brothers got their hands on the film after its Cannes screening earlier this year and they have been promoting it in such a way that most reviewers can’t get beyond comparing it to Dreamgirls, The Commitments or even Good Morning Vietnam. There are some elements in common with each of those films and the writers cite The Commitments as an influence on their approach, but for me The Sapphires is much more interesting.

It’s written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt were in the original group, directed by Wayne Blair who himself starred in the original play and photographed by Warwick Thornton who directed Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009). This trio of Aboriginal filmmakers, with co-writer Keith Thompson, were at the centre of what the producers have described as the strongest creative team on a recent Australian production. The press kit gives a great deal of background on the film and is recommended reading.

The premise of the film is simple. It’s 1968. Three young women are still living with their extended family in an Aboriginal community of Yorta Yorta people in the Murray river area which forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria. One day they are spotted by a down-at-heel Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who is working as an MC for a local pub’s talent contest. This leads in turn to a decision to audition for the US Army which is recruiting entertainers for its troops in Vietnam. So far, so conventional, but the trip to Melbourne also involves finding ‘cousin Kay’ who they haven’t seen for several years and who makes up the fourth member of the group. Kay is ‘passing for white’ in Melbourne having been ‘stolen’ by the authorities ten years earlier. This reference to the trauma of the stolen generation, both for the light-skinned children and their families, will drive several strands of the narrative during the film and provide some of the most powerful emotional sequences. The history of Australian policies towards indigenous Australians is brilliantly presented in Rabbit-Proof Fence – in which Deborah Mailman (Gail in The Sapphires) also appears. Most of the remainder of the film takes place in Vietnam with mainly predictable developments involving the girls with GIs and Chris O’Dowd as a loveable but rather hopeless manager. The war scenes were mainly reconstructed around Sydney – but some material was also shot in Vietnam.

The film isn’t perfect by any means – two of the girls have stories that don’t seem to move forward very much. But this isn’t a film about narrative complexity. To work, it needs to do two things well. The first is to give us a real insight into the relationship between the Aboriginal communities in Australia and the Civil Rights movement in America as experienced by the families – and to do this with a sense of authenticity. The second is to present great-sounding music. These two aims are linked since it was Memphis soul (alongside James Brown and Curtis Mayfield) from the late 1960s which provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. (See our posting on Talk to Me.) I can’t be a distanced observer here since I grew up with this music, but I thought the singing (and the US backing band) were excellent. The lead voice comes from Jessica Mauboy, runner-up on one of the Australian Idol shows and, I think, now a major pop music star. Perhaps more surprisingly, as a relatively unknown performer, Shari Stebbins as Kay also sings very well. These two, along with Miranda Tapsell, come from the Darwin area on the Northern tip of Australia. The producers tell us in the Press Kit of the difficulties of finding four Aboriginal women, at least one of whom had a strong lead voice and the other three having voices that produced the right harmonies. At the end of the film, we get to see the original group and the women who went to Vietnam. It’s clear that the production team chose the performers well. I should also add that Chris O’Dowd does very well to hold his own against the four women. My only regret about the film was that I’d have liked more of the group singing Merle Haggard – but perhaps I’m the only one.

The film has done well in Australia taking over $14 million. In the UK it is distributed by eONE Entertainment, the newly expanded Canadian major. According to Screendaily the film was released on 233 screens for No. 7 in the UK chart and a weekend total of just over $500,000. Strangely, in West Yorkshire it was on only one screen at the Showcase in Birstall. Where are all the other screens?

If you like soul music, you’ll like this – but do read the Press Kit afterwards. This is what works as a Friday night feelgood movie for me.

Interesting report on the film from The Australian.

Here’s the Australian trailer: