David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Last week I noted that Paul Ver­ho­even’s im­pres­sive Elle was his first film in 10 years; coin­ci­den­tally, Mel Gib­son’s Hack­saw Ridge is also the first film he’s di­rected in a decade, the last be­ing Apoca­lypto, after which he was en­gulfed in per­sonal scan­dals. The warm re­cep­tion given to his new film in Venice a cou­ple of months ago could in­di­cate that he’s been for­given or, more likely, it could just be a pretty good movie.

As just about ev­ery­one must know, Hack­saw Ridge, though set in Amer­ica and on the Ja­panese is­land of Ok­i­nawa, was al­most en­tirely filmed in Aus­tralia, thanks to the gov­ern­ment’s tax ar­range­ments. This ex­plains why, apart from Bri­tish ac­tor An­drew Garfield, who plays Des­mond Doss, the cen­tral char­ac­ter, and Vince Vaughn, who plays a drill sergeant, just about ev­ery ac­tor on screen is an Aussie, all of them con­vinc­ingly play­ing Amer­i­cans.

You might have thought that, 70 years after the end of World War II, ev­ery story from that con­flict had found its way to the screen in one form or an­other, but of course you’d be wrong. Hack­saw Ridge tells the true story of Doss, who grew up in a small town in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains of Vir­ginia and who em­braced the faith of Sev­enth Day Ad­ven­tists in re­sponse to see­ing his al­co­holic fa­ther (Hugo Weav­ing), a veteran of the Great War, abus­ing his long-suf­fer­ing mother (Rachel Grif­fiths).

In terms of nar­ra­tive, th­ese early scenes are fairly con­ven­tional but they’re nec­es­sary to es­tab­lish the back­ground of a man who would be­come a most un­likely hero. His courtship of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a sweet-na­tured nurse, is han­dled in much the same way it might have been in a film made 50 years ago, but that is a com­pli­ment; th­ese scenes feel con­vinc­ingly of their era.

When Amer­ica en­ters the war, Doss is con­flicted. On the one hand he’s pa­tri­otic and de­ter­mined to serve his coun­try, but his faith will not al­low him to fight or even to bear arms. Nev­er­the­less he en­lists and finds he has to bat­tle the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment and even be sub­jected to a court mar­tial be­fore he can be — re­luc­tantly — ac­cepted as an un­armed med­i­cal or­derly.

Th­ese pre­lim­i­nar­ies take about an hour of screen time, but they’re a nec­es­sary back­ground to the events that oc­cur on Ok­i­nawa, on the chill­ingly named Hack­saw Ridge. This is where Gib­son ups the ante, film­ing scenes of war­fare and con­flict with a graphic re­al­ism that would never have been ac­cept­able at the time.

As a di­rec­tor, Gib­son has al­ways em­braced scenes of vi­o­lence (as ev­i­denced by Brave­heart and The Pas­sion of the Christ) and the hor­rific ex­plic­it­ness with which he stages the film’s lengthy cen­tral bat­tle se­quences is frankly con­fronting. It’s not sim­ply the graphic na­ture of the im­ages — sev­ered limbs, en­trails and the like — but also the con­fu­sion, the noise, the chaos and the fact that the se­quence is so long. This has to be one of the most dis­tress­ing se­quences I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in a life­time of film­go­ing.

Garfield gives a su­perb per­for­mance as this un­likely hero, and there’s strong sup­port from Vaughn (in one of his best roles), Sam Wor­thing­ton, Richard Roxburgh and oth­ers. Vis­ually the film is ex­cep­tional and full credit is due to the army of Aus­tralian tech­ni­cians and crew who worked on it, led by NZ-born, Aus­tralian­based Si­mon Dug­gan, the cin­e­matog­ra­pher.

As di­rec­tor, Gib­son’s ap­proach is bold and fear­less; this rep­re­sents his best work to date be­hind the cam­era.

The film ends with footage of the real Des­mond Doss, filmed in 2003; it’s a re­minder that this al­most un­be­liev­able story is, in­deed, true and that Doss must be re­mem­bered as one of the war’s great­est he­roes. Gib­son’s film will en­sure that this brave man’s mem­ory lives on. The lo­cal con­nec­tions con­tinue with The Light Be­tween Oceans, a stylish screen adap­ta­tion of the ac­claimed first novel by West Aus­tralian au­thor ML St­ed­man, which she wrote in 2012. Like the char­ac­ter played by Hugo Weav­ing in Hack­saw Ridge, Tom Sher­bourne (Michael Fass­ben­der) has been trau­ma­tised by his World War I ex­pe­ri­ences. Back in Aus­tralia from Europe, he is given the po­si­tion of light­house keeper on Janus, an is­land off the West Aus­tra- Hack­saw Ridge (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease The Light Be­tween Oceans (M) Na­tional re­lease

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