Samson and Delilah
d. Warwick Thornton / 2009 / Australia / 97 min
Viewed at: Cinema 1 @ Barbican (London, UK)
Riveting, raw, contemplative, miserable, uplifting, brave. Superlatives hardly do it justice, but Samson and Delilah really is a superlative film.
If I do have criticisms, they are purely filmic ones. For starters, it felt a little episodic at times, particularly once the pair had fled to Alice Springs. There, the daily repetition which marked their life in the settlement remained, oppressive boredom replaced by a foreboding sense of unpredictability. An acceptably minor fault, perhaps, from a director much more accustomed to the short film format.
Similarly, the conclusion was something a let down, a little too nice, a little too neat, and not what more attentive audiences have come to expect from the slower, miserablist cinema to which this film otherwise owes a certain debt. That said, the optimistic conclusion is undoubtedly a major factor in the film’s widespread critical and popular success, especially in Australia, where audiences are desperate for genuine Aboriginal stories, whilst remaining particularly loyal to a mix of uncompromising reality and neat, happy endings. They are popular audiences, after all.
And if the largely ambiguous nature of Samson and Delilah was a little too much for some viewers, its critical and financial success at home has perhaps proved, once and for all, that Australians are more than interested in seeing such stories on the big screen. This is particularly important when you consider that Australian cinemagoers are constantly told by academics and critics alike that they don’t want to see Australian stories, that Australian audiences aren’t interested in watching Australian films. (Although, admittedly, there is probably an unfortunate hint of exoticism for many viewing Samson and Delilah in the vastly populated hinterlands of urban and suburban Australia.)
Admittedly, like any other national cinema, Australia produces some turkeys, but given sufficient time and exposure, local audiences will happily watch themselves in well-crafted reflections of the things that make their society unique. With any luck, films like Samson and Delilah and Bran Nue Dae might just herald a new age in Australian cinemagoing, where mild success becomes less the exception and much more the norm.
Now, I had intended to sidestep all of the explanations and intimations of how this film comments upon the plight of Aboriginal Australia, about the struggle between whites and blacks, about the cancerous indifference amongst large swathes of the Australian population etc. I wanted to do this partly because this film stands alone as an excellent work, in isolation to its historical circumstances. More importantly, perhaps, I had wanted to sidestep those issues because they have been the source of some peripheral disquiet amongst those (myself included) who feel a strange mix of shame and uneasy guilt about how European settlers and subsequent governments have treated the indigenous population of Australia, and had somehow managed to let it overshadow their interpretation of what is – politics or no politics – a deeply moving, challenging and interesting film.
But since I saw it as an Australian living in London, I think it’s worth considering how a film such as Samson and Delilah is received by people who might not possess a detailed knowledge of Australian ‘history’, and how they might consider the film on it merits. (After all, audiences watching a film like The Last Station – released into UK cinemas around the same time – are not expected to have an intimate knowledge of Tolstoy.)
And whilst most Australian film critics have been content to take the line that this is the finest – or best, or most original, or most unique, or most singular – work to emerge from the Australian film industry for some time, I’ve been fascinated by the unending desire amongst some cultural commentators to attach a kind of white, middle-class guilt – a guilt derived from a shameful chapter in Australian history, still not reconciled in spite of recent efforts – to a film which should be allowed to be a film first, and a political statement later.
Thus, when Germaine Greer opens her op-ed piece in The Guardian with the following statement, she manages to sound condescending whilst also missing the point of cinema in general, and of films like Thornton’s in particular:
Some people say they don’t get Warwick Thornton’s film, Samson and Delilah. And some people who say they do get it, don’t.
Such words seem, to me at least, as condescension par excellence. Greer’s article provides a European sounding-board for a certain sentiment among sections of the Australian media, that the ‘average Australian’ cannot truly appreciate this film because they are not privvy to the intricacies and contradictions of a long and complex struggle between the indigenous population of Australia and those ‘outsiders’ who have assaulted this terra nullius over the past couple of centuries.
It seems to me that in applying such weight to a single fiction film you not only risk condescension to the audience, thus threatening to further alienate those already struggling to understand the issues, but you also treat the film (and the filmmakers) as some kind of novelty act, destined on the one hand to stand in for whole swathes of the debate (not to mention their ‘people’), and damned on the other for not providing all the answers.
And for the most part, critical reaction to the film in the UK was measured and thoughtful. A few days after Germaine Greer’s typically uptight display of ex-pat posturing, Peter Bradshaw’s four-star review in the same paper avoided the political by focusing on the personal, aptly describing the central relationship as an ‘opaque and tragic love affair’ during which they ‘never have sex or kiss or even actually speak to one another’ whilst inhabiting a ‘bleak, faintly Beckettian landscape where life rolls on, uneventfully, but is then punctured with acts of brutality’.
Along with an acute comparison to Athol Fugard’s play Boesman and Lena, Philip French also senses a Samuel Beckett influence in his brief review for The Observer (Sunday counterpart to The Guardian), describing the story of ‘two outcasts, rejected by their own people but unable to find a place in the dominant culture’. Thankfully, French leaves the notion of ‘dominant culture’ well enough alone, averting any inclination to read the film as some kind of socio-political tract. Instead, he turns to perhaps the most interesting and noteworthy aspect of Samson and Delilah – its willingness to forgo traditional formal conventions via a distinct lack of dialogue and a rejection of cinema’s typical expository style (in either plotting or camerawork).
Tim Robey’s mixed review for The Daily Telegraph, however, looked upon the formal elements differently, taking exception to Thornton’s tacit embrace of ‘slow cinema’ – and lets not get bogged down in that debate – by suggesting that the film was ‘pushing languorous about as far as you want it pushed’ until the ‘repetition starts to get enervating’. Interestingly, Robey also hints at the sense of white guilt by proposing that Delilah’s attempts to sell her art on the street to an ‘excruciating lack of interest from white café patrons…are strong, shaming scenes for any middle-class viewer’.
Praising the formal experimentation in another four-star review, this time for the London Evening Standard, Derek Malcolm picks up on the political undertones via a succinct suggestion that ‘the film, placid in pace as it is, tells us more about the treatment of Aboriginals by Australia’s authorities than any furious drama’. Just as quickly, however, Malcolm slips back into a familiar condescending tone by adding that ‘it also suggests that Aboriginals have it in themselves to mend their broken lives’.
Some reviews, meanwhile, give us next to nothing. Perhaps owing to a desire to steer well clear of a complex debate (or maybe due to a lack of intellectual aptitude), the otherwise ‘droll, ascerbic’ Daily Mirror critic David Edwards offers a blog review of little consequence other than the telling observation that ‘the two young leads give performances so natural it’s as if they’re not acting at all’. Similarly, Wendy Ide of Times Online praises the film eloquently enough but seems unwilling to make any insightful judgements.
In The Scotsman, Alistair Harkness offers an unapologetic assessment of the politics of Samson and Delilah, enthusing about the distinct lack of ‘political tubthumping’ – something that was, in his words, ‘mercifully absent’ – and praising writer/director Warwick Thornton’s decision to ‘weave his critiques of Aboriginal cultural intransigence and Western exploitation into the fabric of a tentative and tender love story’.
Writing in Time Out London, Dave Calhoun also reserves praise for Thornton whom he sees as playing ‘a clever game with sympathy’ by never demanding that we feel sorry for the pair, thus refusing to manipulate the audience and simply acting as a ‘sensitive and fearless commentator unafraid of revealing ugliness on all sides of the social divide’. Between them, Harkness and Calhoun’s balanced approach to the subject matter were amongst the most perceptive (and least hyperbolic) of any of the UK’s mainstream press reviews.
The final British word on Samson and Delilah, however (though not without its own reliance on the unavoidable politicisation), came from Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times, who captured the open, multifarious nature of the film thusly:
To Australian and other fans the film already seems so many different things – a blast of native-race misery, a rebuke to white overlording, a folk-expressionist portrait of town-and-desert schism – that you pays your money and you takes, and perhaps you contribute your own ideas to, the created dreamscape.
And the notion of Samson and Delilah as a dreamscape seems about right to me – not a film to ask every question, nor one to provide every answer, it simply is.
A great film, first and foremost.