I have had the peculiar privilege, recently, of seeing two films that are about either a person I knew or a place I lived. Perhaps it’s not so unusual to see a film about somewhere you have lived, but in this case the place was Darwin, in the Northern Territory, the film Australia, but of that more later. The person I knew was Stuart Browne, who wrote a novel called Dangerous Parking, made into a film by Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors), who wrote, directed and starred in the film, I think the last role was a bit accidental, and the project was, it seems a labour of love. The film was financed by individual investors and I had been just a little richer, I would have taken a punt, because there is no doubt that it freed Howitt from the constraints of sentimentality that are often demanded of a film with such difficult subject matter, and by that I don’t mean Stuart. His novel was based on his struggle with cancer and the on the content of his life, which for much of the time, was a struggle with addiction. What makes the novel compelling is Stuart’s sense of tumour, sorry sense of humour. It is a richly funny, demanding, sharply paced novel and Peter Howitt does it serious justice. Stuart and I were friends, all too briefly, we chatted over the heads of our toddler children as we helped run a little creche that put us all on a rota. In my time off, I headed straight for the World Cafe in trendy Crouch End and read my way through the Booker list that year. When I was on duty, it was often with Stuart and we talked children, toddlers, the north Californian coast and writing. His novel was published two weeks after he died of the bladder cancer he contracted while I knew him. It would be easy to talk about Stuart, but the film says a great deal as does the book, Noah Awkright, Stuart’s character in the novel, is played with verve and committment by Peter Howitt, who does not try to be him, but somehow gets the essence of the book and thus I see the hints of Stuart. The film honours the humour, with action cut with some animation, the pace is great, the content explicit but never gross, the pain … ah the pain. It is easy to block out the idea that there is pain with cancer, when you only see the public face of the man, but the great device of the film and the novel is that it takes you beyond that, if you can stand it, and that’s probably where the freedom from the money helped. They did a great job which could allow me to segway into – not so the depiction of Darwin in Australia, but that would be a cheap shot. It’s not that bad.
It’s easy to believe, when you live in a place like Darwin, that nothing can happen there. That you have escaped, and a small not particularly pretty place can remain unnoticed by international events. It felt like that when I was there a few years ago, even though it’s prettier now, and larger, and it definitely felt like that when I was there from 1969 to 1972, at the tale end of the stolen generations, some of whom, I think, were at school with me. But in 1942, Darwin became the front line of Australia’s WW2 and for just over a year it and the Northern Territory endured bombing raids from Japanese. Even so, despite it’s role as defender of the outback, despite the loss of life, Darwin’s still seemed insignificant, until, that is Baz Lurhmann came along. Described by the Northern Territory News (Ben Langford) as a director who could “out camp a drag-queen wrapped in a tent” Baz Lurhmann applies, colour, CGI and Judy Garland to Darwin – I, with Ben Langford, say “weird”.
It’s an epic love story, set against the background of the Northern Territory, the small town power politics of “independent” men and the history that Darwin suddenly found thrust upon it. As an “English Rose” once challenged to meet the demands of the outback myself, I found Nicole Kidman’s cliched Pomey at the beginning irritating. However, in the second hour, she settled down and Hugh Jackman, worked hard on screen to make the Drover who indulged in the forbidden love of an aboriginal woman, and fought for the Brits in the First World War, believable and yes – very sexy.
If you accept that you are seeing a love story, that uses the land and history, then the Rhett Butler, Scarlet O’Hara stuff works. If you allow yourself the naive view of the aboriginal community (and let’s face it they deserve a bit of romance) then – well then – I still have mixed feelings. It is camp, and the irony of that combined with the Darwin I knew – well that’s a laugh! It’s easy to romanticise independent men, tough policeman and power hungry station bosses, but when you live with the violence that comes with them, and Darwin in the 40s didn’t just keep the “abo’s” out of the pub, there were rumours even when I was there, of their pursuit to the death, at least during the war, and whilst no one wanted to drink with them, they sure as hell didn’t mind selling them the grog to take away with them to drink themselves to death. Even the sacred David Gulpilil is not immune. He wears well though, and whilst his role hasn’t changed much since Walkabout, one of my favourite moments in the film (yes I have a few) is when he stands in the bombing chaos while the camera circles round him at a low angle, juxtaposing the dignity of his ancient civilisation with the raw savagery of technological war.
The travelogue aspect of the film is also a bit strange, the use of CGI appears to have been applied to the territory, the
stampede scene places the cattle against the edge of a cliff that I’m not sure exists. Katherine Gorge is stunning and there are waterfalls, rivers, crocs and the never-never, but somehow it doesn’t come over as authentic through the CGI. Tourists wishing to visit, as a result of the film, should also remember that that little swim they did in the sea at the height of the wet – “bloody dangerous but” – speaking as someone who was stung by a seawasp. Now, you can’t swim off Darwin at all because of the crocs, which were almost extinct when I was there. They stopped shooting them in 1970 – I gather that not long after that one of my teacher’s was eaten – ho hum – and that I think – sums up the film!