Film re­views David Strat­ton and Stephen Romei re­view the lat­est re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

Stranger­land (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease Slow West (M) Na­tional re­lease

The Aus­tralian Out­back has been de­picted reg­u­larly in films as a source of men­ace, and not only in se­rial killer movies such as Wolf Creek. Time and again film­mak­ers have sug­gested that, for those Aus­tralians who live around the coast­line, there’s some­thing to be feared about the mys­te­ri­ous in­te­rior. Wake in Fright, Walk­a­bout, Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock, Be­Devil, Long Week­end, Ra­zor­back, Mys­tery Road: th­ese are just some of the fea­ture films that have ex­plored a strange and — for the out­sider — some­times scary land­scape, far from the cities.

The lat­est film to fall into this cat­e­gory is the aptly ti­tled Stranger­land, which is set in the fic­ti­tious town of Nath­gary (pop­u­la­tion 1848), a com­mu­nity lo­cated close to spec­tac­u­lar desert land­scapes of rocky red hills and canyons — a land­scape pho­tographed around Bro­ken Hill, though the scenes set in Nath­gary it­self were filmed in the NSW west­ern town of Canowin­dra, which is nowhere near the Out­back.

Stranger­land is, not sur­pris­ingly, about strangers in town. The Parker fam­ily — Catherine (played by Ni­cole Kid­man), Matthew (Joseph Fi­ennes) and their two chil­dren, teenaged Lily (Mad­di­son Brown) and younger Tommy (Ni­cholas Hamil­ton) — is a rel­a­tively new ar­rival. Matthew is a phar­ma­cist and it seems that he and Catherine de­cided to move to this rel­a­tively iso­lated place be­cause of the be­hav­iour of Lily in the pre­vi­ous (un­named) town in which they lived; Lily, we learn, had be­come sex­u­ally in­volved with one of her teach­ers.

None of the Park­ers is happy in Nath­gary. Matthew, though kept busy at work, is edgy while Catherine con­stantly com­plains about the town she says she hates. Lily is bored and re­lieves her bore­dom by hang­ing out, in the scant­i­est of cloth­ing, with the kids who in­habit the town’s skate park, while her younger brother — or­dered not to let his sis­ter out of his sight by his fa­ther — com­plains about this “shit­hole of a town”. He blames Lily for ev­ery­thing (“It’s all your fault we’re here”), but it’s hinted that Lily’s be­hav­iour isn’t the only rea­son for the fam­ily’s ex­ile.

Matthew re­minds his wife that their daugh­ter is “al­most as out of con­trol as you were”, to which Catherine re­minds him that, af­ter all, he mar­ried her. The early scenes of the film, scripted by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres and di­rected by first-time fea­ture direc­tor Kim Far­rant, are strong in de­pict­ing the place and its peo­ple and es­tab­lish­ing an un­set­tling mood that sug­gests from the first mo­ment that some­thing bad is go­ing to hap­pen. When it does, though, it’s un­ex­pected: one night, with an all-en­velop­ing dust storm im­mi­nent, Lily and Tommy walk out of the house and dis­ap­pear. Matthew watches them go but does noth­ing to stop them. Why?

This is one of many unan­swered ques­tions in the film, though it’s not en­tirely ac­cu­rate to say the ques­tions aren’t ad­dressed in one form or an­other. I was re­minded of the Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni master­piece L’avven­tura (1960) in which, af­ter es­tab­lish­ing the char­ac­ters in the first half of the film, the direc­tor fo­cuses on a search for a char­ac­ter who has gone miss­ing in the sec­ond half. I’m not sug­gest­ing Stranger­land is on the same level as L’avven­tura but it is a strangely com­pelling and in­trigu­ing work in which the lo­ca­tion — hand­somely pho­tographed by PJ Dil­lon — plays a cru­cial role.

For her de­but fea­ture, Far­rant has been for­tu­nate to work with a splen­did cast. Kid­man, who last played an Aus­tralian in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia five years ago, brings depth to the trou­bled char­ac­ter of Catherine, re­mind­ing us that she fre­quently has cho­sen chal­leng­ing and off­beat roles dur­ing her in­ter­est­ing ca­reer. Hugo Weav­ing, as the lo­cal cop in charge of in­ves­ti­gat­ing the dis­ap­pear­ances, is in ex­cel­lent form, as is Bri­tish ac­tor Fi­ennes as the trou­bled Matthew.

Stranger­land may pos­si­bly be too mys­te­ri­ous to be a ma­jor suc­cess, but this im­mac­u­lately made movie goes a long way to­wards re­mind­ing us why a vi­brant lo­cal film in­dus­try is so es­sen­tial for the na­tion as a whole. Its in­tel­li­gently drawn char­ac­ters, with all their as­pi­ra­tions and all their fail­ings, are a part of this Aus­tralian land­scape, though in many ways they have a recog­nis­able uni­ver­sal­ity. Like the char­ac­ter played by Gary Bond in Wake in Fright, they’re un­set­tled by the ex­treme con­di­tions they find in this small out­back com­mu­nity, where dan­ger lurks just be­yond the town lim­its. An even more ex­treme ex­am­ple of a film that fakes its lo­ca­tion set­ting is Slow West, a Bri­tishNew Zealand co-pro­duc­tion set in the Amer­i­can west but filmed al­most en­tirely in New Zealand. The ti­tle in this case is mis­lead­ing and prob­a­bly off-putting; there’s noth­ing slow about the pace of the film. Scot­tish writer-direc­tor John Maclean — a for­mer mu­si­cian — wastes no time es­tab­lish­ing the char­ac­ter of Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teenager who has jour­neyed from his home in Scot­land in search of Rose, his sweet­heart, from whom he was sep­a­rated in tragic cir­cum­stances (which will be re­vealed in flash­back). Jay is a babe in the woods, a naive in­no­cent ill-equipped for his mission as he trav­els alone through the danger­ous land­scape of mid-19th cen­tury Colorado; alone, that is, un­til he en­coun­ters Si­las Sel­leck (Michael Fass­ben­der), a lone gun­man who of­fers to act as the boy’s guide and pro­tec­tor for a price. What Jay doesn’t re­alise is that Sel­leck has an­other agenda, but, in the mean­time there’s plenty of dan­ger lurk­ing from hos­tile Na­tive Amer­i­cans and a gang of cut­throats led by Payne, a role in which Ben Men­del­sohn rev­els in an­other of his gallery of lik­able vil­lains.

You eas­ily could be fooled into think­ing the New Zealand land­scapes through which th­ese char­ac­ters travel re­ally are Colorado, and af­ter a while it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter, so grip­ping is this rel­a­tively sim­ple story and the way in which Maclean tells it. Rob­bie Ryan’s cam­er­a­work is a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the film’s suc­cess, but what el­e­vates Slow West from the av­er­age west­ern (not that, sadly, we see too many of them th­ese days) are the ironic and un­ex­pected twists and turns to what is re­ally a clas­sic for­mula.

The drama builds to an al­most un­bear­ably tense cli­max, set in a re­mote cabin in the mid­dle of a corn­field. Here, Maclean demon­strates that he’s a fine ac­tion direc­tor, able to chore­o­graph scenes of gun­play as well as the best of them.

Smit-McPhee, the for­mer child ac­tor who came to promi­nence in the Aus­tralian fea­ture Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther (2007), is im­pres­sive as the stub­born and re­source­ful pro­tag­o­nist whose de­ter­mi­na­tion to lo­cate and to marry his sweet­heart is one of the few noble mo­ti­va­tions to be found in this un­trust­wor­thy en­vi­ron­ment.

He makes a good foil for Fass­ben­der, whose iconic gun­fighter is a wor­thy de­scen­dant of ac­tors such as John Wayne or James Ste­wart who played sim­i­lar roles in an­other era.

Michael Fass­ben­der and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Slow West, main pic­ture; Joseph Fi­ennes and Ni­cole Kid­man in Stranger­land, be­low

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