Australian readers were recently asked to nominate their ten best Australian films. I thought I should make my list for myself. It included The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gallipoli and, to my surprise, Muriel’s Wedding. To my further surprise, I discovered that Muriel’s Wedding topped the readers’ list. What was it about this comedy, both broad and subtle, that appealed to so many viewers? After all, wasn’t it just a popular entertainment about a gawky girl who desperately wanted to get married?
Muriel’s Wedding clicked. It had a witty script that combined funny lines with deadpan humour. It was satirical about Aussie pomposity, and about cons and shady dealings. It also featured Abba songs with a spirit of gentle mockery. There was a lot to laugh at and about.
On second and subsequent viewings, however, while I found that the humour is still there, it had become familiar and I did not respond so exuberantly. The sadness underlying Muriel’s struggles, her father’s callous attitudes and her mother’s humiliation and despair tended to emerge.
This response to Muriel’s Wedding reveals a great deal about Australian attitudes and Australian cinema. Comedy is welcome. We enjoy the funny side of life. Overseas commentators note that our sense of humour in so many of our films is ‘quirky’. We enjoy the send-up (mainly when we do it ourselves to ourselves). We can take the serious seriously too. But it should never be deadly serious. The Australian sensibility is a complex of many elements. Some of the most important are: a young outlook, brash responses, an easy hedonism, sympathy for the underdog, extreme competitiveness (think, sport), a ‘fair go’ and having one’s heart in the right place.
It is important to remember that since 1788, when the first white settlers (convicts and marines) arrived in a land previously occupied for more than 50,000 years by aboriginal people, there was a predominantly British and Irish presence. Chinese and a variety of gold-seekers came during the 19th century. However, it was not until the 1940s when post-war European migrants changed the Australian mix. Melbourne is considered the third Greek city of the world (after Athens and Salonika) and there are more Maltese in Melbourne than in Malta. Italians (especially), Poles, the Dutch migrated in substantial numbers.
The Constitution of 1901, establishing the federation of states (formerly colonies) decreed a White Australia policy and did not allow the vote for indigenous aborigines. A referendum overturned the latter, but not until 1967. Asian students from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia began to come in greater numbers to study at Australian universities during the 1960s. With the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the cutting of Australia adrift from Britain because of the Common Market, the links with Asia became stronger.
Asians migrated. Australians travelled widely in Asia. Although the climate of feeling (more than opinion) currently reflects suspicion of Islam and echoes the US terror of terrorism, the nation is more xenophobic than it has been for some decades. Yet, Australians still see themselves as open and welcoming.
These themes are often explored in cinema, both feature films and documentaries. For instance, in 2002, five feature films on aboriginal themes were released: The Tracker, Black and White, Australian Rules, Beneath Clouds and Rabbit Proof Fence (which also had substantial overseas release). This concentration on aboriginal themes was quite unusual. The Catholic Film Office and Signis (the World Catholic Association for Communication) gave its annual award to the five films as a group.
The revival (widely referred to as the renaissance) of the Australian Film Industry occurred in the early 1970s and was supported by governments of both political persuasions (Labour and Liberal/National). Government funding offices still support a majority of films (at both federal and state level).
Before 1972, there had been continuous (though sometimes meagre) film production since 1899. The standard text on Australian cinema until 1977 lists 258 films from the beginning until 1929.1 By the mid-1920s, Australia like most countries had experienced the influx and popularity of Hollywood films. Director Ken G. Hall emulated some American models of production and marketing during the 1930s, making 18 films, most of which were popular. However, World War II put and end to this development. While quite a number of films were made in the late 1940s and during the 1950s, they were usually modest and small budget films. British and American companies also came: The Overlanders, Kangaroo, A Town Like Alice, Robbery Under Arms, The Summer of the 17th Doll, The Shiralee, On the Beach, The Sundowners.
The 1960s were the lean years, production money and talent going into documentaries and television production.
In retrospect, it is amazing that Australian cinema had a revival and that so many of the films in the 1970s were of such good quality, found audiences at home and abroad and began to win festival awards. The directors have been in waiting, the talent for the technical side of film-making quickly emerged and within the decade we had some ‘stars’.
Directors with subsequent careers overseas emerged in the 1970s: Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong, Paul Cox, George Miller. Their films include Breaker Morant, Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Devil’s Playground, Caddie, Mad Max. Had the revival collapsed in 1981, there would still be a strong catalogue of impressive films.
However, the boom continued into the 1980s (although exploitation of tax breaks meant that much mediocre material was produced). Significant films of the 1980s include Mad Max 2, Gallipoli, The Man from Snowy River, Careful He Might Hear You, Annie’s Coming Out, Bliss, The Year My Voice Broke, - and the decade ended with Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark) and Dead Calm.
By this time Hollywood beckoned and Bruce Beresford directed Robert Duvall to an Oscar for Tender Mercies and Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy, which was Best Film of 1989; Peter Weir had directed Linda Hunt to the Oscar for The Year of Living Dangerously and had been nominated himself for Dead Poets Society. Mel Gibson became a superstar.
Critical and popular success
Looking to the more recent past, we see that 1991-96 produced a range of films of different genres that won both critical and popular success at home and abroad. Jocelyn Moorhouse directed Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe in a strange tale of a blind photographer, Proof (1991). Russell Crowe was back in 1992 as the leader of a racist skinhead gang in Melbourne in Romper Stomper, although the winning film of 1992 was Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom. Australia/New Zealand became Oscar winner in 1993 with The Piano (acting awards to Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin and screenplay to Jane Campion).
Quirky was the adjective for 1994 with Muriel’s Wedding and the perennially popular drag-queens-travel-to-Central Australia comedy, Stephan Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (Priscilla was the bus they travelled in.) More Oscar nominations in 1995 with Chris Noonan’s delightful Babe. A win in 1996 for Geoffrey Rush impersonating pianist David Helfgott in Shine.
Those can now rightly be referred to as Golden Years. These headliners were not the only ones made, of course, and there were other popular films. But they give an indication of what was happening: offbeat drama, musical, feminist fable, quirky comedy, children’s and family entertainment, biography. These years also saw many of Australia’s actors finding their place in world cinema. One thinks of Judy Davis, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Toni Colette, Rachel Griffiths, Geoffrey Rush, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman – to name some of those most widely known.
If only it were to be like this every year. Nor was it. For the next five years, there were many very interesting low-key films. The major blockbuster was Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda (1998). The other films were more genre types, comedies, thrillers, some action films, along with crime capers. In looking at this period, it is clear that there were quite a number of explorations of the darker side of the Australian character and of human nature.
Two films of 1998 embody this: Rowan Wood’s The Boys, a frightening portrait of a brother released from prison and dominating his family and The Interview where the audience was not sure who was the hero and who the villain when one man intrudes into another man’s home. They were the two major winners of that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards. The winner for 1999 was in the same vein, a dark comic look at a gang of Sydney criminals. It won Best Film and acting awards for Heath Ledger and Bryan Brown.
What a relief in 2001. The world fell in love with Baz Luhrnman’s Moulin Rouge. Nominations and awards galore. At home, the big winner was a film that showed how intelligent, well-written and acted studies of relationships can be strong cinema: Ray Lawrence’s Lantana with AFI wins to Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong. As has been noted, the aboriginal themes were significant for 2002. But 2003! Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story with a moving performance by Toni Collette stood out along with a wry comedy, Gettin’ Square, and Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush and Naomi Watts coming home for a new interpretation of Australia’s iconic 19th century criminal, Ned Kelly.
The rest of that year was slim pickings and, once again, the only way was up. Symbolically, the 2004 AFI winner (in 13 categories!) was the story of a young woman leaving home to find herself and then return. The title, Somersault.
This survey is a reminder that it is best for any nation, for any culture, to tell its own stories for its own audiences – and to budget and market accordingly. Any overseas success should be a bonus rather than something to be expected. This survey also serves as a reminder that a nation’s cinema provides a vast resource for self-understanding and for communicating some insight for outsiders in images and storytelling.
1. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australia Film, 1899-1977.
Peter Malone is an Australian priest who has been reviewing films since 1968. He has taught biblical studies, theology and media studies. At present he heads
SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication