Tag Archives: Australia the Movie

Dangerous Darwin

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.

Me on the cover of the Northern Territory News circa 1970

Me on the cover of the Northern Territory News circa 1970

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

Arnhemland from Ubiru

Arnhem Lnd from Ubirr

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!

Australia – The Movie

The Mary Gums

The Mary River Gums 1970

It was known as Australia’s Pearl Harbor, a place bombed by the Japanese leaving the Aussies with an abiding fear of its South Asian neighbours – and now, of course, there’s a film. Australia – the movie set in the long neglected outback of the Northern Territory.

I lived there between 1969 and 1972, in fact I still own a medal that celebrates the first complete 100 years of the existence of Darwin – the bombing didn’t count as it did not destroy the city. Darwin was destroyed though, in 1974, by Cyclone Tracy – but that’s another story.  At the moment the Australians, Baz Lurhmann, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and others, including David Gulpilil are turning Darwin and its flirtation with history into an epic to match Gone with the Wind right down to the semiotics of the publicity. I have not yet had the opportunity to see the film, but what I do know is that it adopts the romanticism of the outback and applies it to the whole of Australia. Which has always amused me, when in fact most of the population live in the suburbs of the South and are as wedded to their washing machines and televisions as is the rest of the materialistic world. Darwin pre-Tracy had a population, I think of approximately 30,000 people, it is 2,000 miles from Sydney and its nearest neighbour is Timor. As for that population, it was widely rumoured that Darwin was a place to run, somewhere you went to hide, to get away from the past, from a crime, or from your parents, in some cases it was to get away from arthritis. Its relationship with the weather was fraught, its relationship with the sea – worse, its relationship with its indigenous peoples – shameful, as would be true of most of institutional racism in Australia, but in Darwin it was, and to some extent still is – in your face. Whether the film will go any way to redeeming that, or romanticising it, I don’t yet know – watch this space. In reality Darwin was an interesting, if difficult place for a Pomey like me to live. It has changed since 1974, Tracy took it all, so most of the film seems to have been filmed in Bowen, a place I remember for a plague of toads,  maybe cane toads. Untouched by cyclones, Bowen must be still much the same to provide the set for pre-cyclone Darwin. The post-cyclone Darwin runs trips to Kakadu,

Sunset from Darwin Yacht Club

Sunset from Darwin Yacht Club

tours and there is no swimming in the beautiful blue sea, at least when I lived there you could swim from May to September when the seawasps retreated, now the saltwater crocs inhabit, not just waterways but the harbour – the sea taunts the unwary swimmer. Inland, the waterfalls and lagoons are now also infested, when I swam in the Mary River, only freshwater crocs eyed our canoes and kayaks, now tourists ride the rivers eying the salties from a safe distance – usually. It seems the Australian tourist board want some of the secrets of the Northern Territory revealed, in an attempt to convince a wider audience that Australia fought its own battles, the film’s publicity hints at travelogue – waterfalls and horses, tough men but delightful men and innocent but determined women, destined to fall in love not just with each other but with the place – easily done. I have yet to find out whether the film is any good, but I will go and see it – after all I have been a Darwinite!

Mary River Gums 2005

Mary River Gums 2005