Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

Charlie's Country ★★★★★ M

Co-written by director Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil, Charlie’s Country tells it like it is. Charlie (Gulpilil) lives in a humpy in a remote community where the local police are enforcing whitefella law, especially the restrictions imposed by the Howard government’s intervention legislation. While Charlie appears to have a cordial relationship with the local policeman (Luke Ford), what he says to him in his own language is not the light banter that the young policeman assumes it to be: “You stole our land. You got a job and a house on my land. I want a house for me.” Luke wants to be transferred to the city. He doesn’t trust the Aborigines, believing that “if you go soft on them, they take advantage of you”. Yet it does not occur to him to repay Charlie for his help in tracking criminals. Sick of whitefella junk food, Charlie and his mate Black Pete (Peter Djigirr) try to source traditional bush tucker, only to have their car, guns and spears confiscated. Little wonder that Charlie refers to whitefellas as “thieving bastards”.

Despite his apparent nonchalance and sense of humour Charlie’s frustration is mounting as is his overwhelming grief for what his people have lost, achingly depicted in a close-up of his tearful face as he waves farewell to Fat Albert who is being flown out to hospital in Darwin for dialysis. Charlie knows that his old friend will “die in the wrong place, a long way from [his] country, no-one with [him]”.

Soon after, Charlie goes bush, living off the land and reconnecting with his culture. Wearing a pair of stylish reading glasses, he fashions spears and paints on bark. His return to his mother country is, however, thwarted by the onset of the wet season. A stint in hospital in Darwin leads to a stint in prison because he has been supplying Faith (Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu) and her “long grass” mates with alcohol. The brief but graphic scenes of police raids on these fringe dwellers are ugly and disturbing, highlighting the inter-racial tension. “Piss off and go back to your community” prompts the comment: “They should just shoot us like in the old days”.

Particularly symbolic is the scene where Charlie’s distinctive long grey hair and beard are shaved off in prison. Looking straight into the camera, Gulpilil subtly conveys how Charlie’s identity is being taken away from him. Even when still and silent, Gulpilil’s face tells us so much. Similarly, his beautiful posture and rhythmic gait convey Charlie’s innate dignity. An acclaimed dancer himself, Gulpilil has chosen to make dance the means by which Charlie can re-establish himself within his community. “I danced for the Queen of England,” he proudly tells the community kids as he shows them his cherished photo of Aboriginal dancers performing at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

With Peter Djigirr as co-producer, Peter Minigululu as cultural advisor and Gulpilil as writer, Charlie’s Country paints an authentic picture of life in the “communities”. Unashamedly political, the tragedy of this Aboriginal everyman’s story is counterpointed by the sense of humour that has sustained his people throughout the past two centuries. The fact that de Heer has worked on numerous occasions with director of photography Ian Jones and the whole production team doubtless explains the peerless production values of this film. It fully deserves the hype generated by Gulpilil’s Best Actor award in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.

Still Life ★★★★ M

John May (Eddie Marsan) gets ready for work in Still Life

John May (Eddie Marsan) is a loner. He has no family. Employed by the council to organise funerals for people who die alone, he does his job to the best of his ability. Clad in the protective clothing of a forensic investigator, May meticulously examines the homes of the deceased, piecing together a picture of the person. If he is unable to trace any relatives or friends, he attends the funeral service alone, listening attentively as the clergyman or celebrant delivers the eulogy that May himself has written, just as he has selected music from the deceased’s own collection to play. Each evening he returns to his neat council flat to dine on tinned tuna, toast and tea.

When, after 22 years, he is sacked as a cost-cutting measure, he requests to be allowed to complete his final case. Although they had never met, Billy Stoke lived directly across from John May in a similar council flat. As he methodically pieces together Billy Stoke’s story, May develops a posthumous connection with the larger-than-life paratrooper veteran. He tracks down Billy’s last love, Mary (Karen Drury), the proprietor of a fish-and-chips shop called Mary’s Plaice in Whitby. In a veterans’ home he meets blind Jumbo (Ciaran McIntyre), whose life Billy had saved when in the Falklands. He visits the prison where Stokes had spent the odd memorable stint.

Gradually, May loosens up: he goes tie-less, he tries new food, he even shares a bottle of whisky with two of Billy’s “dosser” mates on the steps of a church. When he eventually meets Billy’s estranged daughter Kelly (Joanne Froggatt), they form a tentative friendship. By the time Billy Stokes is to be buried, May has rounded up all his friends and relations. Although May’s modest response to thanks is simply, “It was just my job”, the final scene reveals how very much this unassuming little man is appreciated.

Written and directed by Uberto Pasolini, Still Life won Best Film, Best Director and the Critics’ Prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Stefano Falivene’s cinematography subtly captures the way John May’s world opens up as he begins to connect with the living. The unexpected use of magic realism in the final scene is masterful.

Begin Again ★★★★ M

From writer-director John Carney comes this delightful film about the redemptive power of music. Set in New York, it deftly captures the buzz of the city.

Record executive Dan Mulligan’s (Mark Ruffalo) life is a train wreck. He is estranged from his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener); his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) has good reason to be embarrassed by him. Permanently inebriated, hung-over or stoned, Dan doesn’t like himself much either.

Young songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), has just been dumped by her partner, Dave (Adam Levine), who has hit the big time on the music scene. On the eve of her return to England, broken-hearted Gretta runs into an old friend, Steve (James Corden), who cajoles her into singing at the club where he has a gig. Dan, sacked from the music production company he founded, stumbles into the club in search of yet more alcohol. In a brilliantly executed scene we see him imagining that he is conducting full orchestral backing as he listens to Gretta’s song.

Thus begins a fortuitous musical collaboration and friendship that restores both characters’ belief in themselves and provides the audience with 104 minutes of unabated enjoyment. Calling in favours from musicians whose careers he has helped launch, Dan and Gretta set out to record an album of her songs on the streets, rooftops, subway stations of New York. This affords us not only great visuals but great music in the assured hands of production designer Chad Keith, director of photography Yaron Orbach and composer Gregg Alexander.

While the plot is relatively simple, the characters are definitely three-dimensional. How they might eventually resolve their various problems is only sketched in. The most important theme of Begin Again is how music helps them all survive the bad times. Uplifting!

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby Girls High School.

Free double passes!

With minutes to go for the start of his 100th birthday party, Allan Karlsson escapes out of the window of his retirement home — so starts a 6 million copy Scandinavian best-seller that enters our cinemas on August 21. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared almost surpassed the top-grossing film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden. The film, likened to Forrest Gump, stars Swedish comedy great Robert Gustafsson.

On offer from distributor StudioCanal are 15 double passes worth $39 for the film. Be first in the draw to get them by emailing with “The Hundred Year Old Man Film Tickets” in the subject line, or writing to “The Hundred Year Old Man Film Tickets”, Education, NSW Teachers Federation, Locked Bag 3010 Darlinghurst 1300. Entries close on August 12. Include your name, Federation membership number, workplace name and phone number, postal address and home phone number.

No multiple entries, please.