By Richard Winters
My Rating: 9 out of 10
4-Word Review: Aborigine driven to murder.
Jimmy Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is an aborigine living in Australia during the turn of the century while being raised by the Reverend Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife Martha (Julie Dawson) as his foster parents. Once he reaches adulthood he goes out into the world looking for a job, but finds racism at every turn, which affects his ability to make an honest living as he’s continually cheated out of wages by his white employers. While doing work for the Newby family he meets Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor) a white woman whom he marries after he thinks he got her pregnant only to later learn that the child was not his. Once the baby is born the Newby’s try to convince Gilda to leave Jimmy and refuse to pay him his salary or provisions for the work that he’s done. Furious at his mistreatment Jimmy enlists the help of his uncle Tabidghi (Steve Dodd) to threaten the Newby women with axes while the Newby men are away in hopes that this will scare them enough to pay Jimmy what he’s owed, but instead things get quickly out-of-control leading to the brutal slaughter of the women and forcing Jimmy and his family to go on the run.
The film is based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Thomas Keneally, which in turn was inspired by the life of Jimmy Governor an Indigenous Australian who was involved in the killings of nine people that precipitated him going on the run for 14-weeks and created one of the largest manhunts in Australian history. While the film did well internationally and was highly acclaimed it was received poorly at the box office in its native country where films dealing with Australia’s troubled history are generally avoided by the public causing director Fred Schepisi to lose his entire investment of the $250,000 that he put into the production.
The film though on its own terms is excellent particularly with its revisionist history approach where the gloss and romanticism of the past get stripped away leaving the viewer with a stark sense of the desperation and cruelty that existed back then. The terrific acting also helps including Lewis, who at the time was working as a bricklayer before being spotted by Schepisi’s wife at the Melbourne airport while he walked by her and this lead to him being given the starring role. Ray Barrett, as a corrupt constable and Punch McGregor, whose lost and forlorn facial expressions allow you to perfectly read her character without much dialogue being needed, are stand-outs as well. My favorite part though, or what resonated with me long afterwards, were the scenes filmed inside the Bundarra Dorrigo State Forest in New South Wales during the manhunt where the unique foliage and large boulders give off an almost surreal vibe.
Some of the issues that I had with the movie, which overall is quite good, centered mainly around its music. For the most part the score is subtle and nonobtrusive, but during the murder sequence it gets loud and obnoxious like it’s warning us something bad is happening, which we really don’t need since we can easily see this with our own eyes. The killings are recreated in a very vivid way and quiet horrifying, so the heavy-handed music hurts the graphic moment instead of accentuating it like it was intended. I also noticed while researching the real Jimmy Governor that he had a beard especially in the photo of him after his capture and yet here Jimmy has no beard even after being on the run, which seemed implausible.
The fact that we have a main character who commits several heinous acts, but we still emotionally side with him is what helps this movie stand-out from Hollywood films that feel compelled to makes protagonists likable to the point that they sanitize history. Here we’re shown that the ‘good-guy’ can do, even if they feel it’s justified, some ugly things and in the real-world the line between right and wrong can sometimes be merged and subjective. This is a message that Australian movies do a great job of conveying while Hollywood, in their zest to create ‘audience pleasers’ tend to modify the facts to conform to what they feel are the accepted pre-conceived narrative/tastes of the audience they’re trying to attract, which ends up creating a weaker product that doesn’t reflect reality.
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Released: June 22, 1978
Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes
Director: Fred Schepisi
Studio: Hoyts Distribution
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, Tubi