The Shiralee is the fourth of Ealing Studios’ Australian films and I think it is an impressive melodrama, revisiting a familiar Ealing genre from the late 1949s and early 1950s. By this point in 1957 Ealing had sold its studio facilities to the BBC and left the uncertain embrace of the Rank Organisation to take up residence at MGM-British in Borehamwood. This did at least have the promise of better international distribution even if the Ealing team did feel that something had been lost in the move.
A ‘shiralee’ is a slang term borrowed from indigenous Australian languages which means a burden of some kind. It was often used to refer to the ‘swag’, the few possessions that an itinerant worker carried with him from one small town or farm to another. Ealing was fortunate to be able to cast Peter Finch, who was born in the UK, grew up in Australia and then became an actor back in the UK, as the swagman. It’s hard to imagine any other actor quite so qualified to play the role. Finch had appeared in a small part in Ealing’s 1949 Australian film Eureka Stockade and had gradually moved into lead roles in British cinema. He had a terrible reputation (gleefully celebrated by the press) as a boozing womaniser. He was also a bloody good actor. The story was adapted from a first novel by D’Arcy Niland. The script was by the director Leslie Norman and Neil Paterson. Norman had been on Harry Watt’s productions for The Overlanders and his other films in East Africa and Australia and by this time had become a director after many years as an editor and associate producer.
A brief outline of the plot reveals Peter Finch as ‘Macauley’ the swagman who returns to his Sydney flat after weeks (months?) away to discover his wife and her lover. Incensed, he grabs his young daughter ‘Buster’ (Dana Mason) and heads out back on the road. In the adventures that follow in road movie fashion he moves from one small job to another as Buster becomes more attached to her father despite the hardships. They travel by means of walking and hitching rides. Macauley makes both friends and enemies wherever he goes and his past catches up with in the form of a woman he once knew well, Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris). His friends prove his saviour with boarding-house keepers played by Sid James and Tessie O’Shea. The narrative begins with the possibility of a social drama structured as a road movie but gradually changes and moves towards melodrama. Macauley is constrained by the need to look after his daughter (she appears to be around seven) even though she is a trouper and quite self reliant. He is used to his freedom and some employers are reluctant to hire him with the girl. We are also not surprised to discover that his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) still has an interest in Buster. The last section of the narrative moves rapidly in melodrama mode. The ending may be considered to be a familiar Ealing restoration of a form of order, although what’s gone before suggests that life for Macauley and for Buster won’t be all quiet domesticity.
The end section of the narrative does seem a little rushed (though the film is 99 minutes) but the ‘darkness’ of the melodrama has been hinted at in some of Paul Beeson’s camerawork. Beeson had begun his career as a focus-puller at Ealing in 1939 and had 18 Ealing productions under his belt before he stepped up to shoot West of Zanzibar for Harry Watt in 1954. The Shiralee was his 4th DoP credit. On the shoot in Australia and back at MGM-British he had around him many of the longstanding Ealing creatives including Jim Morahan as art director, Stephen Dalby as sound designer (though not called that in 1957) and Gordon Stone as editor. His photography captures the landscape which several critics refer to as ‘barren’ or similar but to me looks like open pasture for sheep. It’s also referred to by some as the ‘outback’. I’m not sure how that term works for Australians? Perhaps it is metaphorical for anything outside the cities? I would link it to the idea of the ‘bush’, i.e. land that has not been farmed or ‘fenced’ – though the latter has other meanings in Australia?
The other criticisms of the film include the insertion of Sid James and Tessie O’Shea as a ‘comedy relief’ couple. It’s true that Ealing was fond of inserting characters who might provide comic relief and I have previously worried about Tommy Trinder in various Ealing films (e.g. The Foreman Went to France, 1942) and he did appear in another Ealing Australian film Bitter Springs (1950). But Trinder was a recognised comedian. Sid James had been appearing as a character actor in British films since 1947. True, he had gained fame on radio and then on TV in Hancock’s Half Hour since 1954 and this was perhaps why the charge was made. Tessie O’Shea fulfilled the ‘larger than life’ character type and the jokes appear in The Shiralee, especially in the ‘banter’ when she visits a butcher’s shop. But again, she could play character parts and I think that both James and O’Shea work well in the film. One of the issues here is that British film criticism in the 1950s was still mired in the dispute between realism (good) and any form of expressionism (bad). Social comedy has always been a problem for middle-class critics I think. It’s interesting that Ealing’s late 1940s comedies were praised but in the 1950s, apart from The Ladykillers in 1955, it was the comedies or films with comedic elements that were often seen as failures. One other addition to this film was the attempt to connect to the new pop music of 1957 with a Tommy Steele song. This is sung over a blank screen before the opening credits like the ‘overture’ of a 1950s musical. Unfortunately this title song is poorly recorded and uses an oversweet girl group chorus. It is followed by John Addison’s orchestral score under the credits with hints of an American Western before an Australian voiceover narrates an introduction to the ‘swagman’. Steele has a second unmemorable song written by Lionel Bart later in the film. He had become the UK’s first modern pop star in 1956 as a skiffle performer moving into early rock ‘n roll and his banjo playing might have worked well in a more ‘raw’ version of the title song. It seems Ealing wasn’t quite ready yet for new ‘youth music’.
In his Zoom lecture on Ealing in Australia last week, Stephen Morgan referred to the last two Ealing films in Australia as ‘moving away from the community ideas of the 1940s’. I think he sees this as Australian film beginning to define itself in opposition to the British and American films made in Australia – or possibly it just marks the general (and regressive) move away from collectivism to American-style individualism? But is this what really happens? In The Shiralee, I think that Macauley is in one sense a loner who antagonises some folk but who also makes firm friendships. The film does restore ‘order’ in the community but it’s one mainly on his terms. Having said that, I’m not sure how long the new ‘equilibrium’ will survive. Unfortunately Ealing itself couldn’t last long after 1957. This is, I think, one of the more satisfactory late Ealing films. Ealing itself had lost much of its earlier community feel during the 1950s. I will try at some point to cover the other two Australian Ealing productions and then think about the whole ‘overseas Ealing’ project.
I watched The Shiralee on Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ Vol. 5 DVD. It has also been shown on Talking Pictures TV as in the trailer below:
The Siege of Pinchgut is remembered as the fifth film made by Ealing Studios in Australia and also the last film made by Ealing as the entity headed by Michael Balcon. By 1958 Ealing had negotiated a deal to make films at ABPC’s studios at Elstree and release them in the UK through Associated British Pathé (although Rank still distributed The Siege of Pinchgut in various European territories). This last film was made mainly on location in Sydney with some scenes shot back at Elstree. The cast is mainly Australians in the smaller parts but with leading players from the UK and Hollywood star Aldo Ray in the lead role. I’ve known about the title for a long time but delayed watching it until now – in preparation for a Zoom event led by Dr Stephen Morgan, the Australian film scholar based in London. I’m not sure what I expected but ‘Pinchgut’ turns out to be a local name for a 19th century fort built on a rocky outcrop located in the wide entrance to Sydney Harbour. Its official title is Fort Dennison and it was used as part of the penal colony’s operations in the 19th century and as a defensive feature for the harbour in the 20th.
The plot of the film is straightforward. An ingenious prison break sees Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) evading recapture and seemingly set for an escape from Sydney with his brother Johnny (the Canadian actor Neil McCallum who was based in the UK). British character actor Victor Maddern plays Burt and Italian actor Carlo Giustini plays Luke, the other two members of the gang who spring Matt. But the boat taking them out Sydney harbour breaks down and drifts towards Pinchgut and its three inhabitants, the Fulton family. Matt Kirk believes he was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (but he does have a criminal background). His aim is to persuade the Attorney-General of New South Wales to grant him a re-trial. But now he can’t escape the city and negotiate a re-trial from a safe place. I don’t want to spoil the plot of a suspense thriller but the authorities become aware of the four men on the island and that the Fultons, father, mother and daughter (Heather Sears as second lead in the film in the same year that she appeared in Room at the Top), are hostages. At this point the narrative becomes a tense siege drama because of the presence of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Kirk threatens to use the naval gun on the island to fire at the ammunition ship and its cargo of gelignite. Such a move could kill thousands as had been seen in various wartime explosions such as that in Bombay in 1944 (which one of the gang had observed as a naval rating). On the other hand, the island is within range of sharpshooters stationed on the Harbour Bridge.
The film is in my view a well-made and engaging genre film. It was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival in 1959 at a time when commercial British films were often accepted at festivals and it was shown in competition for the Golden Bear. However, it wasn’t particularly successful at the UK box office and it received a thumbs down from some UK-based critics. The Kine Weekly described it on release in October 1959 as a “hearty action melodrama” and a “very good British booking”. The Monthly Film Bulletin Review by ‘JG’ (possibly John Gillet?) suggests that the central issue of Kirk’s ‘innocence’ is not properly established but equally the some of the dubious decisions of the politicians and the police authorities aren’t satisfactorily worked out. In the end the film strives for its ‘entertainment’ impact with Aldo Ray’s presence appealing to the US market. Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book takes a similar line but expresses it slightly differently, accusing the film of a confused stance over the violence in the film – as much the violence of the authorities as of the gang. The film gives a kind of moral endorsement to the authorities that they have not earned. Barr suggests that this confusion is “typical of the weakness of ‘fifties Ealing”. I can see that these analyses have some force but it’s a pity that Barr has such a clear agenda in his overall study of Ealing that he doesn’t spend time on any of the plus points about the film.
The Siege of Pinchgut was directed by Harry Watt, the former documentary director from the 1930s who moved into fiction features with Ealing during the war and who made five features as part of Ealing’s attempt to create a ‘Commonwealth’ presence for the company. He made two films in East Africa and three in Australia, beginning with The Overlanders in 1946. Ealing attempted to build up Australian filmmaking facilities by investing in the National Studios in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood but a combination of financial constraints on Ealing initiated by Rank’s John Davis and a lack of support by public funding in Australia stymied future development. The Siege of Pinchgut which used only location shooting in Sidney with interiors back in the UK, proved to be the last attempt by a UK studio to establish itself in Australia. Watt’s documentary background is featured in several aspects of the film including the evacuation of dockside Sydney and the attempts to remove the explosives from the ship. These ‘procedural’ scenes are matched by the excellent cinematography of Ealing regular Gordon Dines. I was reminded of his great work on Pool of London (1951) for the exteriors but also impressed by the studio work inside the fortifications of Pinchgut. I was struck also by the evacuation itself and the sense of an Australian city preparing for a major disaster. I was reminded of the other major disaster scenario of the period, the adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about nuclear war, On the Beach (1959), shot presumably around the same time but in Melbourne. I think it is also worth mentioning that by making the fourth gang member an Italian, hoping to get back to Italy and buy his own fishing boat, this film, like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), points to some of the problems being experienced by Australia’s new migrants.
Overall, I don’t think this film represents the kind of ‘sad’ ending implied by Charles Barr. I note that during the film’s Elstree shoot, Aldo Ray contributed to a fair amount of promotion for the film. I don’t know why the proposed production slate with ABPC didn’t take off – it may have been that the company became too interested in building up its TV interests. I certainly think this film is worth a watch. I recorded it from Talking Pictures TV which broadcast it in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. There is also now a new Network Blu-ray (Region B). Network discs are very good in my experience.
Released online during June 2020 in the UK and Australia (where it was in cinemas in 2019), The Australian Dream was broadcast by the BBC and is now available on iPlayer for “11 months”. I recommend this documentary for any audience but especially for any sports fans during this period of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Having said that, I recognise that there are aspects of what the BBC blurb describes as an “inspirational story” that might not be understood in some cultures. I’ve read at least one prestigious reviewer in the US who didn’t ‘get’ aspects of the film.
Adam Goodes is an Indigenous Australian who became not only a major star in his sport, but also the holder of the ‘Australian of the Year’ Award in 2014. However, the casual racism that continues to plague Australian social and public life and Goodes’ own discovery about his family background and the history of his indigenous community eventually meant that he retired as a football player at least a couple of years earlier than he might have expected. His story is indeed inspirational, not only in how he became a great player but also in how he responded to both the praise and the racial abuse of football fans and social commentators.
Australia is a passionate sports nation, arguably one of the most passionate in the world. Australians are generally good at sports and they support local and national teams in large numbers both in the stadiums and on TV and on social media. There are four types of ‘football’ played professionally. The most watched and the wealthiest is what is colloquially known as ‘Aussie rules’ or ‘footy’ with a major competition, the AFL (Australian Football league), a competition of 18 teams attracting some of the world’s biggest crowds to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG) for league championship finals. ‘Aussie Rules’ has some similarities with Gaelic Football in Ireland but indigenous Australians have also claimed that a similar kind of game was played before the Europeans arrived. Australia also has Rugby League, Rugby Union and Association Football – ‘soccer’ in the US – but none of these has the playing and spectatorship base of the AFL.
This documentary is one of two competing titles, both released in 2019. I haven’t seen The Final Quarter but it is available online in the UK via iTunes. The Final Quarter uses only archive material to tell its story and it provides educational support materials (but only in Australia – see the official website). The Australian Dream does feature Adam Goodes himself and he is, in every way, the ‘star’ of the documentary. The film is written by the Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, a distinguished figure as journalist and news anchor in Australia. He appears at various points in the film. The director is Daniel Gordon, the British documentarist who specialises in sports stories who I remember as the director of The Game of Their Lives (2002) about the North Korean national football team who competed in the World Cup Finals in England and gained many fans.
The Australian Dream is a highly narrativised documentary, starting and ending with celebrations for ‘Australia Day’, an emotional moment for many indigenous Australians for whom the celebrations are painful reminders of ‘Invasion Day’ when Europeans first arrived in Australia. Adam Goodes is the hero of this story and there are recognisable ‘helpers’, ‘blockers’ and ‘villains’ in terms of a Proppian analysis of the narrative. But this isn’t necessarily a conventional narrative in which the hero attains his goal and rescues the princess in the tower. The real achievement for Adam Goodes is that he discovers himself and recognises his identity and that being able to do this helps him get through the racist abuse and resume his life as he wants to live it. He receives a great deal of support from friends, family and footy fans and also the administrators of the football game itself. The tragedy is that despite this, the words and actions associated with casual racism in Australian society generally can do so much damage.
I can’t comment directly on Australian racism. I can only respond to the representations offered by Australian film, TV, literature and broadcast media – and it looks pretty bad from that perspective. But I can recognise so much in Adam Goodes’ story from studying the attempts to stamp out racist behaviour in UK sport and especially in British football (e.g. what is now the English Premier League, the highest profile sport in the UK). In the last few years we have seen players like Raheem Sterling picked out for criticism in the tabloid press and on social media and the England team in Bulgaria in 2019 almost moved to leaving the pitch after a barrage of racist chants. They stayed and won 6-0, which is a good response but they shouldn’t have to face this abuse. The incident that sparked much of the controversy in The Australian Dream concerned a 13 year-old spectator at a major game, a girl at the front of the stand, close to the pitch, who called Goodes an ‘Ape’ when he came towards the fence. Stunned, Goodes asked for her to be removed and the stewards obliged. After the game Goodes accepted a telephone call from the girl, who apologised. He had the grace to accept the apology and to assure her that she was not the problem. She had heard this kind of language somewhere – it’s endemic in the society. But Adam Goodes can’t erase the incident and soon it was picked up by racists on social media and by Andrew Bolt, a TV pundit who accused Goodes of an over-reaction and of ruining the girl’s life. In this kind of repeated claim, the victim of racist abuse becomes responsible himself for the further abuse heaped upon him. Some of the critics of the film suggest it gave too much space to Bolt. I hadn’t come across Bolt before but he is familiar in that British TV and journalism features many similar characters. The only difference is that he appears calmer and ‘colder’ but his clear intentions are just as objectionable. Some critics have also suggested that there is too much use of Stan Grant in the film and I can see that, while Grant’s support for Goodes needs to be aired, the footballer is his own best advocate.
What is ‘casual racism’? I guess that the distinction is between ‘casual’ and ‘institutional racism’. For many years the spotlight was on attempts to fight institutional racism- the ways in which institutional structures had developed to exclude and marginalise people outside the mainstream (or in some cases the élite) in major institutions. That fight is not won yet but things have begun to improve. Ironically, the incident that sparked the racist backlash against Adam Goodes occurred in a footy game that was part of the ‘Indigenous Round’, a round of matches each season in which the contribution of Indigenous players to the League’s success is celebrated. The AFL itself has been supportive but has been undermined by some of the major figures in the game, whose racist comments have created the openings for the real fascists in the society to exploit. ‘Casual racism’ is not ‘casual’ for those who are most affected by it. Within football in particular, such comments have often been ‘excused’ or ‘de-fanged’ by renaming them ‘banter’, a concept referring to the way professional sports people play jokes on each other, insult each other etc. in the name of friendship. Banter is fine if everyone who plays the game accepts the rules. But banter can easily become deeply offensive and racial difference is very dangerous territory for ‘jokes’. In recent years, casual racism has also become part of the so-called ‘culture wars’ which have become a central poisonous discourse across social media and something exploited by the new right to devastating effect.
Adam Goodes is a remarkable man and I think many people will be moved by not only his dignified response to the attacks upon him but also by his emotional relationship with his mother, who he later discovers was part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Indigenous Australian children. Everyone should see films like this and ask themselves serious questions about how they behave on social media and in the decisions they make in their social lives. ‘The Australian Dream’ is an ironic and suggestive title that certainly demands investigation and reflection.
‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.
Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.
Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.
The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.
Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.
I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.
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).
The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.
In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.
Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.
If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.
Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.
Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.
Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.