I presume the ‘New Australian Cinema’ strand was originally intended to have more than two films in it, otherwise I’m not sure quite why it wasn’t folded into the ‘New World Cinema’ strand. (Does Australian cinema not count as ‘world cinema’? Apparently not, apparently it needs to be in a language other than English. In that case consider the emphasis changed here not ‘New World Cinema’ but ‘New World Cinema’.) However, the only film I saw in the ‘New World Cinema’ strand shared a lot of thematic similarities with the two films from the ‘New Australian Cinema’ strand, so I’m reviewing them all together.
This film is a lot. It also needs pretty much every trigger warning imaginable. (Rape. Murder. Child Harm. Casual Homophobia. Pretty much every last white character is racist to a greater or lesser extent.) I was expecting it to be brutal but it was so much more brutal than I was expecting. Several people – maybe as many as half a dozen – walked out of the film and I was very nearly one of them. (I spent a good twenty minutes holding my coat in my arms, braced for the final thing that would cause me to lose faith in the film completely.) The first forty-five minutes or so of the film feel about twice as long as the rest of it, and if you can get through that then the rest of it is merely hard going as opposed to harrowing. When faced with the festival voting slip for this film I felt the need for a whole new category – how do you sum up a film that was clearly very good, and probably quite an important film, but which nonetheless you didn’t enjoy? That perhaps the whole point of the film was to be un-enjoyable.
All that said. It’s a beautifully shot movie. The forest feels like a character in it’s own right, dangerous, fickle and indifferent. It’s pretty rare to see an Australian film that’s not set in either urban Australia or in the dust of the outback. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Australian film where the weather was so unrelentingly grey and wet, and I’ve definitely never seen a film set in Tasmania.
Clare and Billy are the emotional heart of the film, both complex and flawed characters, they hate each other on sight, but over time and through adversary come to form a somewhat co-dependent friendship. Which sounds pat and heart-warming, but is actually much messier and far harder won, given that both characters have been thoroughly traumatised by their uncomfortably similar life experiences. (They’ve both been forcibly taken from their homes, relocated in a new life they have little control over, and seen their families murdered in front of them.) We’re reminded throughout that neither of them are speaking their first language – Irish and Palawa Kani respectively. The decision not to subtitle either of them when they’re not speaking English is an interesting one, that emphasises the use of shared minority language both to include and exclude, along with acting as a reminder of just how wide a gap in experience and culture Clare and Billy are communicating across.
The film is a damning indictment of colonialism in Australia, both the convict transportation and the treatment of the various aboriginal peoples who were there first. The colony where we start in the film mostly contains soldiers (who are brutalised by their superiors, each other and the whole structure of the military), convicts and recently freed transportees (who are brutalised by the soldiers, the forced labour and the precarious nature of what few rights they have) and the aboriginals (who are brutalised by both the other groups, have almost all been taken from their families, forced to live by white rules but must live outside white society) and who almost all drink far too much in a vain attempt to cope with the grinding dehumanisation of the whole situation. When we get to Laurenceton it may look much more shiny and ‘civilised’ – with it’s neat houses and cultivated fields – but scratch the surface and whatever colonisation has brought to the area it sure as heck isn’t civilisation.
Judy and Punch
Judy and Punch (Foulkes, 2019) manages to both deal with some overlapping themes (revenge, child murder, violence against women, murderously toxic communities) while being a completely different film in tone and message. Set in some nebulous time frame – possibly Elizabethan – and equally nebulous location – probably England but no two people have the same accent so who knows – but fundamentally none of that really matters. (The soundtrack for this film owes something to A Knights Tale (Helgeland, 2001) in attitude if not quite in sheer gleeful anachronism.) This is a Punch and Judy show so the characters are mostly archetypes, fleshed out and made human and messy. This is a morality tale. It’s twisted and strange and very funny. It is, in short: a delight.
It’s a film that is both very old fashioned and very much of the present moment. An exploration of what the casual brutality of the traditional Punch and Judy show might be teaching the children watching it, and also a mirror held up to the dangers of mob rule and trial-by-social media. As a film with actual witch hunts, it forces its audience to consider whose voices are being amplified and whose are being silenced. And it does it all while making the audience laugh and cheer along with it.
(Oddly enough, both The Nightingale and Judy and Punch share a Sound Designer, Robert MacKenzie, who has done excellent work on both films.)
How to describe this film? It’s a film about love and about loyalty, what it means to belong and what it means to be a family. It also deals with the open wound that remains around the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and how much that really exists and for who. It’s a film about violence – both sexual and racial – and power. Who has it, who doesn’t and what the changes in those dynamics mean in real terms rather than pretty idealised words.
It’s a film about who we think we are and how close to or far away from that image we actually are. About what it really means to be free. It’s a very good film, but it’s not a film that offers easy answers for any of its characters or any of the questions it raises.
(All three films can be seen as having the same theme, but whether you read that as ‘men are terribly poor stuff’ or three different women declaring that that which does not kill them makes them stronger – or for that matter both at once – is very much left up to the viewer.)