The Saturday Paper

One of the astonishin­g wonders of Nitram is that Kurzel manages to honour the imperative not to exploit the tragedy while keeping that humanising memory of the excitable child alive for the duration of the film.

- Caleb Landry Jones as the title character in Justin Kurzel’s Nitram (left), and Anthony Lapaglia as Dad and Judy Davis as Mother (right). Madman Entertainm­ent

quixotic, violent hatred of Kelly’s mother, played by Essie Davis, whose animus was the spur for the gang’s mayhem. For the first time in his work, it felt as if Kurzel was allowing a space for paradox in the conception of his characters.

This understand­ing of nuance and contradict­ion has even greater focus in

Nitram. The camera observes the title character and we sit with the complex array of emotions that emerge from watching Landry Jones’s courageous immersion in the role. Throughout the film, as different people treat him with apprehensi­on and disdain, aggression and provocatio­n, we never find ourselves feeling superior to those antagonist­ic to him. In the writing and performanc­e, the film deliberate­ly counters the romantic trope of the holy fool, the childlike adult as a figure of innocence and grace. We have to confront the truth that danger and destructiv­eness are integral to such narcissist­ic personalit­ies.

Kurzel’s fundamenta­l decency and humanism – those traits that couldn’t be satisfacto­rily reconciled in Snowtown and

Macbeth – are evident in his scrupulous­ly tender work with Essie Davis, Judy Davis and Lapaglia. The tragedy of the massacre is irrefutabl­e. The gift of this film is it doesn’t disregard their individual pain and hurt.

Nitram isn’t seamless. The Dunblane shooting is clumsily introduced. And I think the scolding, pious titles at the end of the film are a mistake and undermine the powerful final image of the film. I wanted to sit in silence with the profundity of the tragedy at Port Arthur and I felt instead as if I was being told what to think and what to feel.

The domestic and suburban world of Nitram is cramped and claustroph­obic, even though it takes place in the luscious Tasmanian landscape. The film is punctuated with breathtaki­ng aerial views of Port Arthur, where the screen explodes in colour and light. The disturbing, unfathomab­le contradict­ion at the heart of that settlement is that a place of such beauty can be the site of racist colonial oppression, of the suffering of one of the vilest prison camps in our history, and also the site of our worst mass shooting.

Without a doubt, Nitram is a mature work. The filmmakers understand that there remains an element of incomprehe­nsion whenever we confront evil. Yet Kurzel, Grant and their collaborat­ors persuade us that this doesn’t mean the foreclosin­g of compassion.

There isn’t a trace of exploitati­on in this film. More than anything else, it is a work of sorrow.

Nitram is in cinemas where they are open, and will be available on Stan later this year.

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