Slum­dogs shame our dogs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

NOTH­ING has been so con­sis­tently dis­ap­point­ing cul­tur­ally for Aus­tralia as our film in­dus­try. Af­ter a bril­liant re­birth in the 1970s, it has be­come steadily worse. Our in­di­vid­ual per­form­ers con­quer all in Hol­ly­wood and Lon­don, and even Bol­ly­wood, but Aus­tralian films are con­sis­tently and pre­dictably bad.

Com­pare and con­trast, as the es­say top­ic­set­ter would put it, two re­cent films: the big­bud­get fi­asco Aus­tralia , and the ex­quis­ite Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire .

Aus­tralia cost at least $ 130 mil­lion, per­haps all up quite a lot more than that. It is one of the worst films I have seen for years. And it has been a com­mer­cial me­di­ocrity and crit­i­cal flop. It is not so much a failed epic as a lu­di­crous, camp pan­tomime. It fea­tures su­perb ac­tors: Nicole Kid­man, Hugh Jack­man and the gifted and charm­ing young Abo­rig­i­nal star, Bran­don Wal­ters. But they can­not save it from its ridicu­lous plot con­fu­sion, its con­stant air of con­trived un­re­al­ity, its pre­ten­tious and worth­less nods to other films and the fact that at no point does the viewer be­lieve in or care about the char­ac­ters or the sit­u­a­tions.

It grossly de­fames our na­tion. The treat­ment of Abo­rig­ines is the most morally trou­bling as­pect of our his­tory and we are rightly ex­er­cised about it. But no Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment ever sent Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren to a mis­sion is­land near Dar­win so that the Ja­panese would bomb them. Nor did the Ja­panese land on and take con­trol of such an is­land in the 1942 bomb­ing of Dar­win.

Some crit­ics have ex­cused this by say­ing that Aus­tralia par­takes of no re­al­ity and there­fore this anachro­nism, along with all the oth­ers, doesn’t mat­ter. Aus­tralia claims to be deal­ing with a huge his­tor­i­cal is­sue, the forced re­moval of mixed race Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren. It can’t ex­pect peo­ple to take it se­ri­ously if it then de­picts events that not only didn’t oc­cur, but could not pos­si­bly have occurred in the uni­verse we hap­pen to in­habit.

The script is a dog’s break­fast. At one point the rough Aussie drover ( Jack­man) is driv­ing the re­fined English aris­to­crat ( Kid­man) to her new home. Jack­man says he’s al­ways wanted to cross­breed a wild brumby with an English thor­ough­bred. Kid­man thinks he’s propo­si­tion­ing her and re­acts with shock.

This ba­nal, pa­thetic at­tempt at a joke is im­por­tant be­cause it il­lus­trates the script’s dis­dain for the au­di­ence. Kid­man’s char­ac­ter is meant to be ob­sessed with horses in Eng­land, and with breed­ing her cham­pi­ons. It is in­con­ceiv­able that she could have mis­un­der­stood Jack­man’s re­mark, so the mis­un­der­stand­ing, which is meant to be comic, has no plau­si­bil­ity. In other words, the ac­tors are not de­liv­er­ing the di­a­logue of a joke, they are de­liv­er­ing the di­a­logue of a par­ody of a joke. The au­di­ence is be­ing asked to laugh not at a comic sit­u­a­tion but at a di­rec­tor’s sly and know­ing wink about the ba­nal­ity of comic sit­u­a­tions in films. In which case, why make films at all?

Aus­tralia ex­hibits two of the worst char­ac­ter­is­tics of Aus­tralian film­mak­ing: ex­ces­sive arti­ness, which pre­vents ef­fec­tive story telling and a di­dac­tic, dog­matic, un­sub­tle, hec­tor­ing tone of po­lit­i­cal preach­ing. It is a tragic waste of a unique op­por­tu­nity in Aus­tralian film­mak­ing.

Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire is the re­verse of all that. Made in Mum­bai by an English di­rec­tor with an In­dian cast, it is re­ally an In­dian film. It cost lit­tle in film terms: $ US22 mil­lion ($ 33.6 mil­lion). It has won awards ev­ery­where, vast crit­i­cal ac­claim and huge com­mer­cial suc­cess.

In Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire , you are on the edge of your seat the whole time. The story is melo­dra­matic. It’s re­ally a kind of In­dian Oliver Twist . The treat­ment is re­al­is­tic, high en­ergy but al­ways plau­si­ble. As a re­sult you fall ab­so­lutely in love with the kids. As is the case with many of Dick­ens’s books, in Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire the treat­ment of the hero when he be­comes an adult is slightly less sure, and cer­tainly less af­fect­ing, than when he is a child.

It does strike me there is a re­mark­able de­gree of over­lap be­tween the world of Vic­to­rian English let­ters and con­tem­po­rary In­dian cul­ture. In­di­ans are the only peo­ple left on the planet who still have that Vic­to­rian sense of the full range of pos­si­bil­i­ties of the English lan­guage. The jokes in Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire are mar­vel­lous. The hero, who sells tea in an In­dian call cen­tre, at one point has to cover for a call cen­tre op­er­a­tor who wants to duck out for a sec­ond. He finds him­self on the line to a cus­tomer from Scot­land. The short, high-paced, bril­liant, hi­lar­i­ous con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lows is a riot, wholly be­liev­able and wholly funny. Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire is not try­ing to make a know­ing joke about movie jokes, pre­sum­ably di­rected at movie in­sid­ers, it is just mak­ing a joke.

It is merely the lat­est in a long line of mem­o­rable In­dian films made in the past 10 years or so: Mon­soon Wed­ding , Salaam Bom­bay , The Name­sake , Chak De! In­dia and a lot of oth­ers. Each is distinctively In­dian without mak­ing a child­ish fuss about be­ing In­dian. Of­ten, as with The Name­sake and Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire , they are de­rived from high-qual­ity nov­els.

The con­tin­u­ing love of the novel, es­pe­cially the novel of long, bold, strong, com­plex sen­tences, is an­other of the ways In­dian cul­ture re­sem­bles Vic­to­rian let­ters.

Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire sent me off to read Oliver Twist and I re­dis­cov­ered just what a rat­tling good sto­ry­teller was Dick­ens. He was rhetor­i­cal, at times sen­ti­men­tal, but the driv­ing mo­men­tum of the story means you al­ways des­per­ately want to know what hap­pens next.

Dick­ens’s nov­els, as well as be­ing lit­er­a­ture of the high­est or­der, were pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment. They had great so­cial and po­lit­i­cal im­pact be­cause mil­lions of peo­ple cared about his char­ac­ters and were shocked by the con­di­tions he re­vealed. Read­ing them, you are struck by how much the Vic­to­ri­ans were a peo­ple of words. Con­sider this typ­i­cal sen­tence of di­a­logue taken at ran­dom from Oliver Twist :

‘‘ I con­fess to you that I had doubts at first whether you were to be im­plic­itly re­lied upon, but now I firmly be­lieve you are.’’

What a per­fect sen­tence. Some folks be­lieve Aus­tralian poets achieve much more than our nov­el­ists be­cause the poet me­di­ates na­ture di­rectly to the reader, whereas the nov­el­ist needs a com­plex so­ci­ety to work with.

But that doesn’t ex­plain why our films are so poor to­day. It may be that the cul­ture of gov­ern­ment grants that dom­i­nates our arts has de­prived them of the drive to con­nect with an au­di­ence. On the other hand, maybe we’re just bet­ter at cricket. Come to think of it, the In­di­ans are beat­ing us there, too.

rearview@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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