Global Cinema 9: Australia – Starstruck (1982)

Australia is of course a huge country, but relatively speaking it’s not so populous. Nevertheless it’s had a long and prosperous cinema, with a number of well-known and highly-regarded directors, not least Gillian Armstrong, who directed the film I’m focusing on in this post. I’m not sure if any one film can sum up Australia, but Starstruck seems to capture something of the spirit of the place, at least in the 1980s.


Australian flagCommonwealth of Australia
population 25,758,900 | capital Canberra (427k) | largest cities Sydney (5.3m), Melbourne (5.1m), Brisbane (2.5m), Perth (2.1m), Adelaide (1.4m) | area 7,692,024 km2 | religion Christianity (52.1%), none (30.1%) | official language none (English) | major ethnicity no data | currency Australian Dollar ($) [AUD] | internet .au

The sixth-largest country in the world by area is an island large enough to be (most of) its own continent, and as such has huge diversity of environments, from deserts to tropical rainforest, and mountains in the south-east, and most of the population is concentrated on the eastern seaboard. The name comes from the Latin terra australis (“southern land”) used since ancient times for an (at that point hypothetical) southern continent, though “New Holland” (explorer Abel Tasman’s name for it) was largely used until the early-19th century. It has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for around 65,000 years until Dutch explorers “discovered” it in the early-17th century. The British set up camp for the first time there in 1788, to establish a penal colony, with further colonies set up in Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and other areas, though South Australia was never a penal colony. Indigenous populations declined in these years, with a policy of assimilating the Aboriginal population that continued until well into the 20th century. The separate colonies federated on 1 January 1901 and independence from the UK declared, with formal constitutional ties ended in 1942. Ties to the US strengthened and immigration from Asia was allowed from the 1970s onwards. It still maintains the British monarch as head of state, with an elected Prime Minister.

Cinema had its beginnings in Australia with screenings in 1896, and anthropological shorts from 1900, with the first feature in 1906 being The Story of the Kelly Gang (the earliest feature-length narrative film in the world, depending on your definitions). Studios were founded (the earliest in Melbourne) and there was a boom of sorts in the 1910s, followed by a decline in the 1920s. Production continued at an uneven pace, slowing down significantly by the 1960s, though the Australian Film Institute was founded in 1958. From the late-1960s onwards, though, government supported film more and various programmes led to an Australian New Wave, as well as a fringe of “Ozsploitation”. The 1990s saw a further entrenchment into the mainstream and worldwide success for a number of titles. Cinema continues to be made, although with less worldwide success against the huge American productions, though a lot of these are filmed in the country.


Starstruck (1982)

Obviously Gillian Armstrong’s feature debut My Brilliant Career (1979) is justly lauded, and it’s a fine period film, but with the passage of almost 40 years this, her second feature film, seems almost equally period. It’s contemporary, of course, and it gleefully trades on a certain post-punk new wave spirit of restless energy and vertiginous hairstyles, yet alongside it sits the traditional working class Australia still stuck in the 1950s, tut-tutting at the kids and the noise they make. It’s a slender premise to hang a film around — a TV talent show that could make our heroine Jackie (Jo Kennedy) a big star if only she can somehow inveigle her way on — but yet Starstruck achieves it with single-minded vision. The energy of the musical numbers shares a lot with the kind of art pop of, say, Split Enz, which makes sense given the involvement of that band’s leader Tim Finn in the songs here (and, one imagines, some of the performances too). It’s an energy that sustains the film through all of its madcap plotting, that and the interplay between cousins Jackie and 14-year-old Angus (Ross O’Donovan), who it slowly becomes clear are only so determined at pop success because their family disappoints them so regularly — with the exception of the rambunctious Nana (Pat Evison). This is one of the films I had most looked forward to seeing by Gillian Armstrong and it’s inexplicable that it’s not more widely-available, because it’s not just a precious document of an era (the early-80s) but also a delightful film in its own right.

Starstruck film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Stephen MacLean; Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Jo Kennedy, Ross O’Donovan, John O’May, Margo Lee, Pat Evison; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 22 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 142: The Last Wave (1977)

There’s a slow-building foreboding intensity at work here that sets up its mystery plot nicely — darkness, torrential rain, apocalyptic imagery. The film explores that liminal space between dreams and reality, underpinned by indigenous Aboriginal culture and beliefs. The film makes a lot of play on tribal affiliations and mystical rites and objects, which sometimes comes across as a bit naive, especially given Richard Chamberlain isn’t the most effective lead, and there’s a bit of condescension at work it seems to me. Still, the Aboriginal cast (led by David Gulpilil) are excellent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir; Writers Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu; Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 29: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Unlike the recent run of Criterion films, what’s challenging about this release isn’t anything that’s depicted on screen (there’s no violence or body horror or even bad language): it’s what’s not depicted. It’s an elegant, beautifully-filmed and languorous film, but there’s a gaping void at its heart, which is the lack of explanation for its central mystery — the disappearance of three young women and their teacher at the titular setting. It’s implied (both here and in the Joan Lindsay novel it’s based on) that the events really happened, but in a sense this is a red herring, because the events are pushed into a mythical realm of nostalgia and memory. The director, Peter Weir, and cinematographer Russell Boyd make bold use of a gauzy filter for the camera, imparting a hazy nostalgia to the proceedings. There’s also a bold stylisation to the acting (dreamy and absent gazes abound), while the scene of the girls’ disappearance as their classmate screams after them is a masterclass in channelling the uncanny through the simple expedient of not having them react or look back. More recent films like Innocence (2004) and this past year’s The Falling channel some of the same emotional terrain that Weir set out so long ago (40 years now!), but Picnic at Hanging Rock retains its eerie primacy.

Criterion Extras: David Thomson introduces the film in a short video piece, but the highlights are a contemporary Australian television on-set visit (featuring interviews with the novel’s author Joan Lindsay, and some of the key cast and crew), as well as a more recent return to interview Peter Weir and Anne-Louise Lambert among others. Finally, the dual format set comes bundled with a copy of the source novel, which makes for a fascinating comparison to the final film, and focuses quite a lot more on the aftermath of the events than the film does (I can recommend it, and doesn’t take too long to read).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir; Writer Cliff Green (based on the novel by Joan Lindsay); Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert [as “Anne Lambert”]; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 March 2015.