I suspect that I’m like many people who don’t live in Australia in that, well, I don’t know very much about Australia. Or rather, I didn’t until recently, until I traveled there to visit some long-lost family for most of January. Once I got there, and got settled in, I can say without hyperbole that I absolutely didn’t want to leave. Australia fascinated me more than any place I’ve ever been (admittedly through a tourist’s rosy glasses) — the people are all fit, handsome, and friendly as hell, the food is fantastic and the beer tasty, the beaches will stop you in your tracks with their beauty, the weather is perfect, public transportation (at least in Sydney and Melbourne, where I was) is a breeze, and everyone seems genuinely happy. After two weeks, I wanted everyone I know to move there. Seriously, all of you (except for the jackasses) … let’s move to Australia. It fucking rocks down there. Get a ticket and pack your shit.
Sure, I also learned some darker facts — there are some jaw-droppingingly dangerous creatures — snakes, sharks, spiders, jellyfish and the like that make you want to hide under a bed just by reading about them, except of course that half of the fuckers probably like to hide under beds, too. They’re probably there right now. Best to sleep standing up.
But perhaps more relevantly, what I also didn’t know is that Australia has a thriving little film industry. Like many of you, my experience in Australian film basically consists of Rabbit-Proof Fence, Gallipoli, Romper Stomper, Chopper, Mad Max, Muriel’s Wedding and sadly, Crocodile Dundee (which, like Foster’s Beer, I’m happy to say the Australians are doing their damndest to disown). Those are the more well known ones. But there’s a vibrant film community, and thanks to an adventurous cousin of mine, we were treated to seeing the newest film, Bran Nue Dae (which also premiered at Sundance over the weekend).
Based on the 1990 Australian musical of the same name (making the play the first aboriginal musical), Bran Nue Dae is a singularly peculiar film about an aboriginal young man named Willie (Rocky McKenzie in his first role) who, after a summer pursuing the girl of his dreams, Rosie (the lovely Jessica Mauboy, a runner up on “Australian Idol”), is sent off to seminary school, where he is under the harsh, strict tutelage of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush. Yes, that Geoffrey Rush). But of course Willie secretly pines for Rosie, and when he and the other boys get into trouble for stealing candy and Cokes from the church kitchen, Willie flees the school, on a quest to go home and proclaim his love to Rosie. Along the way he picks up an itinerant, shiftless hobo named Uncle Tadpole, Slippery (Tom Budge), a German student seeking answers to his life as well as his father, Slippery’s hippie girlfriend Annie (singer/songwriter Missy Higgins), and Deborah Mailman as Roxanne, a brassy, drunken older woman who’s just along looking for a good time.
Sounds relatively run of the mill, no?
Well, there are a few wrenches thrown into the mix. First off, it’s a musical. A full-on, song-and-dance musical with some absolutely brilliant and hilarious pieces. In fact, the film is frequently at its best during its musical numbers, particularly the rousing, raucous piece sung by Willie and his schoolmates as he rebels against Father Benedictus in church, singing “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine, and to watch you take my precious land away.” Complete with Rockette-esque high kicks and the occasional jazz hands, it’s a bizarre, surreal moment that lets you know you’re about to embark on a completely different journey than you may have expected (or at least than I expected — I knew nothing of the film when I sat down in the theater).
That song, however, leads into what makes the film so fascinating. Bran Nue Dae is a comedy, a farce, a musical, but also a surprisingly biting commentary on Australia’s historically wretched treatment of its aboriginal people. Set in the ’50s, it reflects how Australia has never fully figured out what to make of its indigenous peoples (who are now a tiny minority — less than 3 percent — of the total population). As is the case of the native populations of most countries colonized by Europeans, their treatment has ranged from indifferent to stomach-clenchingly awful. Bran Nue Dae takes a casual shot at that treatment, most scathingly in Willie’s song in the church.
There’s much more to the film, though little of it makes sense. It’s a goofy, madcap affair filled with missed connections and telegraphed plot twists, surprise familial connections that usually aren’t that surprising, and ribald song and dance numbers that make you want to clap your hands. Director Rachel Perkins juggles these wackadoo turns and twists with aplomb, but by the end of the film, you get the sense that she’s struggling under the script’s ridiculous weight. Despite all of its lunatic machinations, there isn’t any real character development to speak of — whoever the characters were at the beginning of the film is essentially who they remain at the end. Geoffrey Rush has perhaps the only real character arc, in the sense that he actually goes through something of a transformation, but it’s more for comedy’s sake than due to any dramatic dénouement. It’s one of those films that feels about 20 minutes too long, and for a breezy 82-minute film that’s not a great sign.
That said, there’s still a good deal to love about Bran Nue Dae. The performances, when they hit, hit hard. McKenzie’s Willie is suitably muddled, a lost young man torn between what he feels are his cultural and familial obligations, and what he truly wants. Of course, you know he’s going to reconnect with Rosie, but the fun is watching him get there. Mauboy’s acting debut is solid, if unspectacular — except for when she opens her mouth and starts to sing — at that point, you’ll never want her to stop. Her voice is absolutely captivating, and she’s one of those singers whose entire face and demeanor changes as she sings — it takes her over completely. Rush affects a Dr. Strangelove-esque accent and demeanor, which in some ways detracts from his genuine acting ability, but in others is dryly funny. What’s most important and makes the film work more than it stumbles is that they all seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves. The musical numbers are the highlights, and among them, Mauboy and Dan Sultan (as the slick, smooth-talking rock and roller who competes for Rosie’s affection) are the clear standouts. Sultan’s “Seeds You Might Sow” is a thumping bit of country-rock goodness that took me by surprise and made me instantly seek out more of his material when I returned home.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s sumptuous, stunning cinematography, which takes full advantage of both the desert backdrops and the rich color palates that are so naturally available. Vibrant costume design also helps, contributing not only to the brilliant color schemes, but also to the song and dance numbers. The visual appeal of the film is outstanding, providing a riveting parade of colors and sights to go along with the performances.
In the end, Bran Nue Dae, despite impressive receptions at the Melbourne, Toronto, and Sundance festivals, is not a great movie. It’s fun, to be sure, but it has moments that drag, and its absurdity sometimes comes off as a little too carefully orchestrated. However, that doesn’t make it insignificant. Its musical numbers are lively and enjoyable, there are some genuinely enjoyable performances to be mined out of it, and its subtle yet scathing commentary adds another layer to the already complicated history of its native country. Bran Nue Dae will likely be hard to find stateside, but worth the effort if you do.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.