Saturday, July 4, 2009

Review: Lucky Country

Lucky Country
Dir. Kriv Stenders
Year: 2009
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 96mins

The western is a genre that I have been particularly neglectful of. I am wary of them for some reason. In my limited experience with the field there have been ones I have loved and some I have loathed, and my reluctance to the genre surprises me since I have a fondness for Americana that usually flows through them and I love a well-done gun fight. Kriv Stenders' (Boxing Day) new film, Lucky Country, is a local and more intimate version of the western, but I think it fits the bill.

It is 1902 and federation is still recent in the minds and Nat (Aden Young) is living on his bush property with children Sarah and Tom (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence and newcomer Toby Wallace respectively), their mother recently deceased and seemingly nothing to keep them going apart from a pathetic vegetable garden and a neighbour who sells rabbits, but who is leaving to try his luck in the goldfields. Unlike a lot of westerns Stenders doesn't spend long and labourious slabs of time focusing on mundane activities such as walking around the edge of the property or digging for potatoes. It moves relatively quickly - as quickly as a film of this kind can go, I imagine - and with an ever-growing sense of tension.

Rightly so since onto their property come three men; Henry (Pip Miller), Carver (Neil Pigot) and the young, but incredibly ill, Jimmy (Eamon Farren). In repayment for their hospitality and care the men help around the house. They build firewood storage, fix things and provide food. Once Jimmy gets well, however, things take a turn for the worst and from there? Well, I'll leave that to you to discover since one of the best things about Lucky Country was that I was not aware of where it was going and how it would get there. Oh sure, it's probably easy to predict where it will go in a vague sort of way, but there are surprises along the way and I particularly enjoyed the way Stenders got there. The final scenes are particularly surprising and feature a captivating cameo by Helmut Bakaitis (although, to be honest, that voice would probably be captivating anywhere).

I must include director of photography Jules O'Loughlin in this discussion since his work here is pivotal. The way scenes are routinely filmed through gaps in walls, through the roughage of trees and with a slow-burning intensity that really gives the mood of the film at a knifes edge at times. Compare it to the obviously pretty and deliberately showy, but completely void and empty work from Last Ride (click for my review) where the cinematography serves nothing than to actually be pretty. Here it has purpose and serves the film well.

Performances, unfortunately, are a mixed bag and are the major letdown. Aden Young, it must be said, is truly woeful here. Throughout the film I kept getting the idea that he was acting in a very Shakespearean manner. As if he was on stage and acting to the cheap seats. Take a look at Richard Pyros in last year's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and you will see a similar performance, but one in a movie that called for it. Lucky Country is a quiet and solemn movie and an actor screaming and bellowing at the top of his lungs was not what was called for. The young actors fare better with Toby Wallace impressive, but the real highlight for this viewer was Hanna Mangan-Lawrence. She gives a wonderful performance as the teenager with a curiosity about life and sex, but who knows her place in the harsh bushland that surrounds her. Covered in understated costumes, she really stands out amongst the more seasons actors in the cast.

The western is a genre that, surprisingly, Australia hasn't entirely adopted. We have occasional stabs at the genre, usually with a unique parochial twist in titles like The Proposition, Mad Dog Morgan and, if you want to call them such, any version of the Ned Kelly story. Our landscape fits the mold perfectly and in Lucky Country it is utilised perfectly. While the film will certainly not be for anyone - it is a western of sorts and it doesn't revel in masculinity or violence - it is an impressive and impeccably well-done film, yet another in an increasingly strong one for Australian film. B+

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