Reviews by
Tricia Youlden

Mystery Road ★★★★ MA

Mystery Road, the latest film by renowned Indigenous film maker Ivan Sen, is a distinctly Australian Western murder mystery. Having been caught in the middle all his life, Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) has become very resilient. When he returns to the country town where he had grown up, Jay is regarded with suspicion by the Aboriginal community, including his ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) and teenage daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton). “We hate coppers, bro”, a former mate tells him. The predominantly white police force, led by hard drinking Sarge (Tony Barry) treat him with a rather patronising degree of bemusement. Local farmer, Mr Bailey (David Field), exemplifies how most townspeople view Jay by asking him “are you a real copper, or one of those black trackers who turns on his own kind?”

When he discovers the murdered remains of one of his daughter’s friends, Jay’s determination to find the killer is clearly personal. His former neighbourhood has become a veritable war zone, with kids “going round on the gear, going schizo”, and the parents ineffective in their attempts to control them. Jay learns that the murdered girl, Julie, has “been with a few truckies for drugs”. When another girl is found murdered, Jay’s investigation takes on a note of desperation.

Although the enigmatic Johnno (Hugo Weaving), a drug squad cop in town doing some intelligence work, warns him off, Jay is determined to find out who is bringing in the drugs that are tearing apart the community. Sen deftly plants seeds of doubt about the integrity of Johnno, the Sarge and the other cops, as well as surly Mr Bailey and his shifty roo-shooter son (Ryan Qwanten). Tension rises further when Mary’s house is trashed. The final shoot out at Slaughter Hill is as good as any classic Western.

With a stellar supporting cast headed by Jack Charles, Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence and Roy Billing, Mystery Road is laced with laconic, quintessentially Australian humour. Watch out for Zoe Carides’ cameo appearance as Shirley, proprietress of the Dusk til Dawn Motel, an establishment that makes the Bates Motel in Psycho seem welcoming.

Shot in Winton, a small town deep in Northern Queensland, Mystery Road looks stunning. Not only is the surrounding countryside ruggedly beautiful, but all the locations within the town present a detailed picture of the characters and the problems facing their community.

Not to be missed.

The Butler ★★★★ M

Inspired by former White House butler Eugene Allen, whose career was chronicled in Wil Haygood’s Washington Post article following the 2008 election of President Obama, The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who served as butler to seven presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) through to Reagan (Alan Rickman).

Having witnessed his father shot to death at the hands of a Macon plantation owner, young Cecil is taken in by Miss Annabelle (Vanessa Redgrave) and trained to be a ‘house nigger’. This training eventually leads him north to Washington. While working at the elite Washington Hotel, he is spotted by a White House administrator, who offers him the position of butler at the White House. Ironically, Cecil is told that “we have no tolerance for politics in the White House”. For 30 years, Cecil manages to remain a silent witness to the history being made in his presence. He has been trained to serve and he does so to the best of his ability.

However, Cecil’s devotion to his job comes at a cost to his own family. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) resents the time he spends caring for the First Family. Consequently, she drinks too much and has a fling with a neighbour. Their elder son, Louis (David Oyeloyo), becomes actively involved in the civil rights movement, telling his friend that his father “works in politics”, while being ashamed that his father is an Uncle Tom. Young Charlie (Elijah Kelley) enlists to fight in Viet Nam and, while Cecil remains strongly opposed to the militancy of the civil rights movement, it is he who eventually asks that the black White House staff should get equal rights and pay. He and his family gradually realise that, as a ‘black domestic’ in the White House, Cecil has been unwittingly subversive. Indeed, we have seen various presidents ask him for his opinion, which he has given sagely, discreetly and honestly.

Written by Danny Strong and directed by Lee Daniels, The Butler does not sugar coat the issues. The integral injustice of the assumed racial inequality inherent in slavery and segregation is clearly depicted. It is particularly interesting to see how the various presidents relate to Cecil. Ironically, it is Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) who invites Cecil and Gloria as guests to a White House dinner.

The Butler works on many levels as we see the generational change in the way African Americans view their positions and rights in society. The large cast does a great job to bring this piece of ‘massaged history’ to the screen. While there is a certain curiosity value in seeing how the actors have interpreted the famous people whom they are playing, I truly have no criticism of any of these portrayals.

Mr Pip ★★★★ MA

Hugh Laurie and Xzannjah in the confronting, Mr Pip.

From the 1960s on, unrest had been fermenting in the Papua New Guinean province of Bougainville over the establishment and operation of the Panguna copper mine by CRA and Rio Tinto. Proceeds from the mining benefited the PNG economy, but not that of Bougainville. In 1972 an attempt by Bougainville to secede and claim independence failed. From 1988 to 1997, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army fought a bloody war against the PNG Army (shamefully aided and abetted by the Australian Government), in which an estimated 15,000 Bougainvilleans died. It is against this bitter conflict that New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones has set his novel Mr Pip, which screenwriter/director/producer Andrew Adamson has now made into a powerful film.

Hugh Laurie plays Mr Watts, the only Englishman in Bougainville, only there because it is the home of his beautiful invalid wife, Grace (Florence Korokoro). Because of the blockade, the local school has long been closed. Although he is not a trained teacher, ‘Popeye’ Watts is asked by the village chief to reopen the little school. He elects to read aloud to the students Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Fourteen-year-old Matilda (the luminous Xzannjah), in particular, becomes utterly enthralled by the unfolding story, imagining herself in Victorian England with Pip and Estella and Dickens’ other characters all ‘played’ by people she knows. However, her mother, the devout Christian preacher Dolores, played by Healesville Joel, Xzannjah’s actual mother and a gynaecologist, fears that Matilda’s obsession is threatening her very soul. When PNG soldiers come in search of Bougainville Revolutionaries, they mistakenly think that ‘Pip’ is a real person and insist that the villagers surrender him. When this does not happen, the soldiers wreak a brutal assault on the village and its inhabitants, with devastating consequences.

Filming these horrific scenes in the exotic, picturesque Bougainvillean village of Pidia was a cathartic re-enactment of atrocities that local actors or their relatives had experienced. Local carpenters built the replica village ‘set’, so the scenes where it is wantonly destroyed seem horrifyingly real — no artificial tears needed. All the performances are excellent. Cinematographer John Toon used mainly natural light, which adds to the sense that we are seeing a re-enactment of actual events where they actually happened. Tim Finn worked with local musicians to compose original songs and music for the film.

Just as palm trees and sand ‘dress’ the Victorian architecture of historic Oamaru in New Zealand, where Matilda’s imaginary London was filmed, Ngila Dickson’s costume designs for these scenes are informed by the bright colours of the tropical palette.

Mr Pip is a confronting film that evokes strong emotions. Hopefully it will also remind those who see it that the people of Bougainville are yet to achieve full autonomy from PNG. A class action has been lodged in America against Rio Tinto on behalf of the people of Bougainville on various humanitarian and environmental grounds.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby GHS. Apart from the three films she has reviewed above, she strongly recommends Rush and Stories We Tell.