I recently emigrated from England to Australia with my Australian wife. Having an Aussie wife has opened me up to some of the high and low points of Australian culture (The Real Housewives of Melbourne should be classified as a war crime). My wife, who played sports in her youth because Australia has summers, is not the big film geek that I am, so it has been an interesting switcheroo to have her recommend movies to me that I haven’t seen instead of vice versa.
For this list I have chosen five Australian movies from different genres: comedy, horror, Western/historical, crime and musical. My hope is that you will give them a watch and it will open you up to the joys of Aussie cinema.
The Castle: The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigans, an Aussie family who lives next door to the airport. When the airport wants to expand the Kerrigans face eviction and decide to battle it, all the way to the high court. The Castle is one of the most ridiculous comedy movies I’ve ever seen. It somehow manages to skirt that fine line between laughing at the characters and laughing with them. The Kerrigans are shown to not be particularly smart or worldly, but they are also completely without malice or cynicism. They are a loving family with their own little patch of the world that they want to protect and, as goofy as this movie is, only the most cold hearted viewer could not find themselves sympathising with them and cheering them on as they take on The Man. It is also insanely quotable, and if you ever find yourself talking to an Aussie, drop the line “How’s the serenity?” and you’ll have made a friend for life.
The Proposition: Written by Nick Cave, The Proposition is a grim depiction of life in unsettled Australia. Guy Pearce plays one of three outlaw brothers who is captured along with his beloved younger brother. His captors make him a proposition: Go into the outback and find their eldest brother and kill him within nine days or the younger brother hangs. There is no warm and fuzzy nostalgia present here. 19th Century Australia is not John Wayne’s Wild West. It is a grim, racist, violent desert full of bandits, bounty hunters, and amoral police. The cast is made up of a murderer’s row of talent (John Hurt, Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Noah Taylor, Emily Watson), all given tasty dialogue to chew over from Cave’s confident, erudite, bleakly funny and occasionally scary screenplay.
Two Hands: Two Hands is one of my Aussie wife’s favourite movies and I doubt I would have heard about it without her, but am very glad she introduced me to it. It is one of Heath Ledger’s first movies (released the same year as 10 Things I Hate about You) and is a crime movie in the vein of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Ledger plays Jimmy, a worker at a strip club, who is tasked by a local mob boss with delivering ten grand to a woman who lives near the beach. When Jimmy discovers the woman not at home he goes for a swim and the money, which he left with his clothes, is stolen. The film is populated with inept bank robbers, street kids, gangsters in flip-flops, the ghost of Jimmy’s brother, and a radio station prize delivery truck. Ledger is predictably great in it as he desperately tries to escape from his pursuers, while trying to procure the lost money and pursue a romance with Rose Byrne (in her first big movie role as well).
The Sapphires: The Sapphires combines a lot of my favourite things: Motown, Australia, Vietnam movies, Chris O’Dowd, and racial tension in the 60s. Okay, that last one isn’t my favourite thing but it is a topic I find fascinating. Previous to the release of The Sapphires I kept seeing posters all over Melbourne and I dismissed the movie as being an Aussie Dreamgirls. However, good reviews kept floating back to me, so I gave it a chance and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not the musical fluff I expected. The Sapphires tells the story of a musical group made up of Aboriginal girls who, with their drunken Irish mentor, travel to Vietnam to perform for the troops. They fall in and out of love, they argue, they experience racism, they dance, they sing, they get involved in a Viet Cong ambush. The soundtrack is top notch and the talent on display in electric. O’Dowd gets most of the best lines but the girls in the Sapphires more than hold their own in the comedy stakes, and the tone of the film comfortably shifts between light and dark without being too jarring.
Wolf Creek: When I said I was moving to Australia my England friends all asked two questions: “What about the giant spiders?” and “What about Wolf Creek?” Wolf Creek is the story of three backpackers travelling across Australia who run into Mick, a local who isn’t what he seems. This one was a glacially slow burner and probably a little too torture porn-y for my tastes. The opening half feels like fifty minutes of just the scenes from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the van before they pick up the hitchhiker. Once the action starts though it is unrelenting and horrific. In all honesty, I wasn’t too keen on this film (it had its moments but the opening stretch lost my interest in the characters), but I’ve included it in this list because it effectively uses Australia’s vastness and isolation as a tool for terror with the infinite outback being just as scary as the grinning, pitiless Mick. Australia itself is almost a partner in crime to the murderer.
I’ve chosen these movies for their Australian-ness. These movies all contain something that sets them apart from the rest of the world’s cinema, something that makes them simply Australian, whether it be the prominence of an Aboriginal cast, murderers in singlets, gangsters in flip-flops, outback scenery that cannot be matched, or just the use of the phrase “Fair dinkum”, these movies could only come from one amazing place.