Essential Australian Cinema
The Writers' Roundtable is an open-ended discussion forum in which a question or idea is posed, to be discussed at length by our team of contributors.
This month’s question: What is your favourite Australian film and why?
- Jemima Bucknell: Muriel’s Wedding
- Simon Di Berardino: Chopper
- Ash Beks: Picnic at Hanging Rock
- Luke Lewis: The Proposition
- Bradley J. Dixon: The Castle
Jemima Bucknell: Muriel’s Wedding
The nineties are remembered as a time in Australian cinema of camp vibrancy, of colourful, loud films that embraced and celebrated otherness. Along with The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding launched the careers of its cast and makers, made us laugh, got us singing and dancing, moved us to tears — plus, they all featured Bill Hunter (he actually filmed Priscilla and Muriel at the same time).
These three “quirky comedies” are grouped together because they were released within two years of each other and they had commendable box office and international success. They also filter Australian culture through a feminine eye and are about performance, singing and dancing, the love of fabulous costumes and gowns, gossip, romance and getting married. All three films were actually written and directed artfully and lovingly by men, but it is Muriel that has a female lead.
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is an unemployed, unmarried, overweight, socially awkward and dishonest 22-year-old with a well-known father in local politics, and a group of pretty friends who think she is cramping their style. She lives at home in the Queensland beach town of Porpoise Spit and has two obsessions: ABBA and getting married. After being arrested for theft, and publicly humiliated, Muriel steals money from her father (Bill Hunter) and takes a holiday to an island resort. There she meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) a freewheeling, outspoken, and adventurous girl who attended the same high school as Muriel. Rhonda defends her, she loves ABBA, they dance to “Waterloo”, sing to “Fernando” and become instant friends. Muriel runs off to Sydney to live with Rhonda, and reinvents herself. It is not long, however, before her past catches up with her, and when Rhonda is suddenly diagnosed with cancer, Muriel can’t cope and retreats back into her obsession with weddings.
P.J. Hogan’s superb script is one of well-structured satire. Tania Degano and her chorus of twit friends are mean and thoughtless to shy, odd Muriel, but that cruelty offers the film’s finest comic dialogue, and also a diving board for Rhonda’s triumphant shut-downs.
The characters all have their own moments of habitual oddity, and they are all charming. Betty (Jeanie Drynan) makes tea by putting a tea bag in a cup of water and placing in a microwave. Perry (Dan Wyllie) kicks an empty carton of milk around, while commentating an AFL grand final of which he is the champion.
The film is also devastating. Watching Muriel fill an album with polaroids upon polaroids of potential wedding dresses is immensely sad and then there’s Betty, whose confusion and inattention slowly unravel into a mental breakdown. Hogan is able to switch from colourful comedy, to deathly sterility with care. He loves his subjects, even Muriel’s despicable father, Bill Heslop, earns our sympathy when looking out over his baron, smoking backyard, which Betty set on fire before taking her own life.
Hogan’s magnificent ending sets Muriel aside from its contemporaries. It combines the journey of Priscilla with the coming-of-age quality of Strictly Ballroom in a famous reversal of James Stewart’s excited return to his hometown in It’s a Wonderful Life. Here, the girls bid farewell to the hideous, “progressive” structures that men like Muriel’s father have littered the beachfront with while ABBA’s string-heavy disco hit “Dancing Queen” carries them out of Porpoise Spit forever. What is so special about Muriel’s Wedding is that the women rescue each other and manage to find a happy ending despite being broke, paralysed and divorced with no career prospects or romantic interests. Muriel and Rhonda are, to this date, unrivalled as the freest women in Australian cinema.
Simon Di Berardino: Chopper
As much as it feels like a total cliché selecting Chopper as my entrant for favourite Australian film, I have to credit it for one thing above all else: it is essentially the first Australian film that allowed me to dispel the all too common mindset that Australian films are lacking in some way when compared to other national cinemas.
There is, unfortunately, a commonly held belief that Australian cinematic output is a sad and pathetic die cast of American cinema, and that our films offer diluted perspectives on outdated ideas and concepts. Basically, that they are out of touch with Australian audiences and what they want. Our industry is essentially a small colony of Hollywood’s, and that doesn’t help as we struggle to find a true and unique voice in a movie monopoly.
For a while, in my burgeoning cinematic mind, I held that opinion also. That is until Andrew Dominik’s Chopper graced my television and I became witness to a film as powerful, enigmatic and intoxicating as any American film and one that managed to communicate something essentially Australian in the process. Dominik’s fevered portrayal of one of Australia’s most hardened and charismatic criminals Mark “Chopper” Read is a film worth getting excited about. Its central performance from Eric Bana is absolutely electrifying and combined with the clear-eyed approach to the material, both in the written word and visually, the film peers into the Australian criminal underbelly like no film or television series before or since.
The reason it has been chosen here has more to do with it brushing away my own small-minded cobwebs and allowing me to comprehend a world in which our cinema could be as rich and rewarding as any other nations. Such films might be a bit harder to find, but Chopper made that search palatable for myself, and for that I am indebited to it immensely. It’s just a bonus that it’s also an incredible film.
Ash Beks: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Australians are proud of their fables. Visit any rural bar and you would hear anecdotes flung around the room and digested as quickly as a cold beer. Joan Lindsay’s mesmerising novel Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fleshed out and eloquently written example of the great Aussie yarn. Her novel, dotted with sublime attention to detail, presents itself as cold hard fact. The story she shares about three beautiful, young Australian girls who mysteriously go missing on Valentine’s Day 1900 reads as fact. But like all great tales, the line between fact and fiction is extremely blurry.
Young Australian director Peter Weir maintains the eerie ambiguity of the novel spectacularly in his faithful cinematic adaptation. Released in 1975, the film sparkles with stunning cinematography and haunting realistic performances from a host of Australian actors including a young Jacki Weaver and an even younger John Jarrett. Anne-Louise Lambert gives the performance of her life as Miranda, a gorgeous and elegant teenager with just a sparkle of youthful, dream-like sexuality. The cast, particularly the girls, seemingly hold the keys to unlock the hidden meanings of the film and to resolve the unresolved.
Weir purposefully riddles the film with symbols, complexities and ambiguities and holds much respect for the unanswered questions of Lindsay’s novel, giving the viewer plenty of clues but never enough. The resulting film plays to our deepest fear, our fear of the unknown, without ever relying on horror cinema’s clichés and stereotypes to enhance the nightmare. Combine the realistic acting, Weir’s remarkable cinematography and that unusual panpipe score and you’ve got a film as chilling as anything made by the great horror maestro’s of the 1970’s.
Joan Lindsay took the truth behind Hanging Rock to her grave and, despite countless elements of the novel disproven, many still believe something terrible happened at Hanging Rock sometime over Australia’s history. Weir helped cement this great Australian riddle and further amplified the mystery surrounding Lindsay’s tale. I guess we will never know.
Luke Lewis: The Proposition
John Hillcoat’s The Proposition would have to be my favourite Australian film. The western portrays grimly, and I would have thought quite accurately, life in the wide brown land during the 1880s. Guy Pearce’s Charlie Burns is suitably gruff and blank, the perfect combination for a grizzled bushranger/cowboy. Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley is painfully rough yet soft. And then Danny Huston’s Arthur Burns is a horrible (and thus brilliant) antagonist. Nick Cave’s script is strong and weaves an engaging bleak tale. And his soundtrack with Warren Ellis is exactly what the bloody Australian colonial desert would have sounded like, I’m sure of it. That shot from Pearce’s perspective when the Aboriginal man’s head explodes just before Pearce passes out will be forever burned into my brain. It’s horrific, and yet that’s exactly the word to describe life for both the colonies and the native population at that time. Tarantino doesn’t need to make a western in Australia now, Cave and Hillcoat beat him to it.
Bradley J. Dixon: The Castle
"Subtle" probably isn’t the first word anyone would use to describe The Castle, given the crudeness of both its construction and its humour, but no other Australian comedy boasts a script as intricately crafted as Working Dog’s 1997 family comedy. In a similar fashion to the work of Mel Brooks and the Marx brothers, The Castle is a perfectly calibrated joke machine, firing off laugh after solid laugh almost non-stop for 85 minutes.
Take this scene, in which main character Darryl Kerrigan visits his solicitor Dennis Denuto. The way Michael Caton and Tiriel Mora trade lines back and forth is mesmerising; a well-rehearsed, well-choreographed ballet of obscenity-laden dialogue that doesn’t over accentuate any of its punch lines. Under the steady hand of the Working Dog team, well versed in the art of screen comedy from their experience on The Late Show, The Castle has big, memorable, quotable jokes but it also has literally dozens of smaller, unassuming gags that pepper almost every scene. To use Tiriel Mora’s character as an example again, watch how he subtly moves his thumb to read the full name of the Constitution in this scene, and changes the way he says it the second time. To anyone who says The Castle is a funny but not particularly well made film, I say: pay closer attention. It was conceived, written, shot and edited in just five weeks, astonishing when you watch it closely and identify just how much is going on in each scene.
The Castle is an indelible part of Australia’s cultural landscape for many reasons, but the quality of its filmmaking is not one of them. That deserves to change.