Bran Nue Dae
d. Rachel Perkins / 2009 / Australia / 85 min
Viewed at: London Australian Film Festival
Cinema 3 @ Barbican (London, UK)
I wanted to love Bran Nue Dae, I really did. And it is undoubtedly an enjoyable film, peppered with some great performances (particularly Ernie Dingo and the ever-reliable Magda Szubanski), but I just can’t get over how badly it was let down by uneven plotting and over-caricatured bit players. The stuff that worked, worked – the stuff that didn’t, really didn’t, all adding up to a rather uneasy translation of the original stage musical.
And it was undoubtedly this unevenness that posed the biggest problem for me, because key moments of glorious humour or serious drama were often bookended by long periods where not much important or interesting happened. What’s more – although it almost feels sacrilegious (or, God forbid, un-Australian!) – Geoffrey Rush didn’t turn in a particularly memorable performance here. He seemed to be going through the motions for the most part, while some of his comic moments were simply ill-timed and his accent was appalling (this may well have been intentional, but it was also distracting and irritating).
Bran Nue Dae did excel during its comic set-pieces though (especially the film-stealing performance from Szubanski as Roadhouse Betty, a crazy, sex-starved outback service station owner), as well as in the staging of some of its more serious musical moments (particularly Ernie Dingo’s first song, and the one he sings during Willie’s jailhouse dream).
Bran Nue Dae also succeeded in its realisation of a rather sly comment on non-Indigenous and non-Anglo cultures within Australia, from Rush’s Germanic religioso Father Benedictus to the Chooky Dancers, whose performance to a Greek dance tune on the back of a truck is followed by a visit to a Chinese restaurant in the isolated town of Port Hedland in Australia’s sparsely populated North-West.
Now, far from wanting to rely on the age-old criticisms of Australian cinema which I usually fight so hard against, it’s hard to deny that, at times, the pacing of Bran Nue Dae was way out and the film unravelled at a pace far too lacklustre for the musical comedy genre in which it was clearly situated. But where the film really suffered, was its inability to find a successful blend of comedy and pathos, something that became a minor hallmark of Australian cinematic comedies over the last decade or so, from The Castle (2007) to Kenny (2006).
That said, this is a bold step forward for Indigenous Australian cinema. Traditionally, films concerning the Indigenous population are criticised (more than the average Australian film, at least) for either overstating their case via the exploration of heavy issues, or for simply washing over these same problems and trying to sweep them under the rug. In spite of its failings, however, Bran Nue Dae does manage to transcend such criticism precisely because it attacks these weighty issues with a vigorous (and inclusive) brand of humour wrapped in an all singing, all dancing package.
And what’s more, it does so with a fair amount of success, at least commercially if not critically. Germaine Greer, in her condescending and inaccurate piece about Indigenous Australian cinema for The Guardian (UK) a few months back, closed with that most provincial of views on the state of Australia’s national cinema:
“Prizes are all very well, but the box office is the bottom line. Indigenous film has a long way to go before it can earn its keep.”
Of course, Greer neglected to mention the fact that, over the last year, only two Australian features recouped their full production budgets at the domestic box office, and that both featured Indigenous directors tackling Indigenous subjects.
Having won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, Warwick Thornton’s shockingly brilliant Samson and Delilah (the main focus of Greer’s article) rounded out 2009 by converting its $A1.6m budget into $3.2m at the domestic box office, whilst earlier this year, Rachel Perkins’ perky musical rom-com – which cost $A6.5m to produce – used star power and its humorous treatment of Indigenous issues to light up the Australian box office to the tune of $A7.5m.
And with the appearance of recent films such as Stone Bros. (d. Richard Frankland, 2009), a renewed focus on Indigenous content creation through dedicated departments at Screen Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and forthcoming features such as Wayne Blair’s Sapphires, the future of Indigenous Australian cinema looks very bright indeed.
By way of a postscript – speaking of the future (and present) of Indigenous Australian cinema – it would be remiss of me to discuss this particular screening of Bran Nue Dae at the London Australian Film Festival without mentioning the supporting short film, Ralph (2009), directed by Deborah Mailman (who bookends Rachel Perkins’ career with an AFI-winning performance in Radiance (1998) as well as a minor role in this latest feature).
A charming 1980s period piece (clearly semi-autobiographical), it features a 10 year old girl who is so obsessed with Ralph ‘Karate Kid‘ Macchio that she is teased by fellow pupils and treated as an outcast, before finding friendship in a plucky young Aboriginal boy (who also gives the film its political undertones thanks to a relatively subtle reference to the event which sparked the Redfern Riots in 2004).
Although very much in the short film mould, Ralph is undoubtedly entertaining and engaging and will hopefully give someone reason enough to put Mailman in charge of a feature budget.