In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)
This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.
* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.
One of the more successful of summer blockbuster tentpole films is now 20 years old, and with some small caveats it has aged very well, all things considered. A lot of this is down to Steven Spielberg’s very sure directorial hand: he has been one of the industry’s most successful directors, and for the good reason that he exhibits well-honed craft and even a bit of flair, but not the kind that constantly draws attention to itself, with swift editing, big setpieces, noise and action (sorry, Michael Bay).
The most remarked-upon aspect of the film at the time was of course the CGI dinosaurs, but technology has changed a lot in 20 years, and viewing the film in retrospect is to indulge in some of that wistfulness you get while watching, say, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion figures from the 1950s. The CGI is still grappling with conveying a sense of the weight and physicality of these creatures in a way that recent films have only just started to master (with Pacific Rim the current high-water point, though who knows how that will look in a few decades). Nevertheless by the time things kick off, you barely notice the dinosaurs aren’t real anymore.
What’s impressive then — what remains impressive — is the firm hold Spielberg has over the narrative tension, as the characters are first introduced and then gradually put into perilous situations. Just to backtrack a little for those that don’t know the film, an eccentric billionaire, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), has been able to clone dinosaurs, bringing them back to life to repopulate an island he owns as a prospective theme park. After the death of one of his workers, he recruits a number of experts — including palaeontologist Alan (Sam Neill), palaeobotanist Ellie (Laura Dern), as well as mathematician and chaos theorist Ian (Jeff Goldblum) and his own grandchildren — to come and certify the park is safe. Naturally of course it’s not, though this is only exacerbated by the corrupt machinations of one of the key staff members (it does not appear to be a particularly well-staffed park, and the scientists and gamekeepers we do glimpse earlier on seem to quickly disappear as storm clouds approach).
Neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern were ever A-list film stars, but that’s always been one blockbuster strategy: use seasoned character actors in the lead roles (often where the initial draw is something else, such as, well, dinosaurs). It also pays dividends in the long run, as successive generations of viewers don’t have to cringe so much at the one-dimensional action heroics of whoever was the biggest star at the time. Richard Attenborough too gets to be dependably avuncular, so it’s Jeff Goldblum that stands out as the nervy, black-clad mathematician, a sort of Cassandra figure whose prophecies are disregarded until it’s too late. It’s interesting too to see an early Samuel L. Jackson performance as a slightly nerdy, anxiety-prone and put-upon engineer, a year before the Pulp Fiction role that made his name and largely fixed his screen persona.
In any case, Spielberg gets to pursue a few of his favourite themes. There are the fatherless children seeking and finding a surrogate father figure, with Sam Neill’s reluctant Dr Grant by the end stepping up to this role. There’s also a familiar sense of wonder at the natural world (those swooping shots of the island and its lush jungle ecosystem, or the vast hordes of dinosaurs causing our heroes to take shelter under a log), but it’s allied here with some concerns about the limits of scientific endeavour.
Ultimately, though, by bringing into conflict two quite different eras of the planet’s history (not a million miles from the premise of Pacific Rim mentioned above, with its weirdly primordial monsters), it addresses some of the ethics of cloning — a debate that would only increase with Dolly the sheep a few years after the film — while remaining a taut and effective thriller for adults and kids alike. This ability to balance different levels of a debate within a populist mode of filmmaking, more than anything, is Spielberg’s real talent.
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp (based on the novel by Crichton); Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 13 August 2013 (and in the cinema in Wellington, back when it was first released).