Film review: CHARLIES’ COUNTRY, from Built For Speed

Following  The Tracker and Ten Canoes, Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country completes a film trilogy that intelligently and confrontingly examines the experience of indigenous Australians. 

David Gulpilil plays the title character, a man in his early 60’s eking out an existence in a government run indigenous town camp. Once a celebrated dancer who performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House, Charlie’s life now consists of enervating days spent sitting just beyond the dry town’s borders drinking alcohol and lamenting the loss of his people’s land to whites.  Like the town’s other inhabitants, Charlie has to endure demeaning laws and personal restrictions imposed by the Northern Territory intervention.  Inevitably, these strictures poison Charlie’s amiable relationship with local authorities, particularly young cop Luke (Luke Ford).  Despairing, Charlie attempts to return to the old ways of bush survival but the ravages of a life afflicted by white society’s vices thwart him at every step. 

With its skeletal plot, leisurely pacing and lack of conventional action, this film will not satisfy all tastes.  Then again when has Rolf de Heer ever sought to do that? De Heer appears unconcerned with narrative drive or cinematic thrills and instead strives to create an intimate and compelling character study and ethnographic account of lives afflicted by poverty and loss of dignity.  De Heer’s wonderfully immersive, low-key direction aided by cinematographer Ian Jones’ rapturous lensing of the Northern Territory’s harsh beauty make the slow unspooling of Charlie’s life an hypnotic and moving experience.

Most importantly, David Gulpilil is unforgettable as Charlie.   Poignant, saddening and yet at times funny, he portrays Charlie not as a flawless victim but as a troubled and complex man whose self-worth and physical health have steadily been eroded by an imposed white culture, a loss of opportunity and a life of deadening repetition.  Fittingly, David Gulpilil was named Best Actor in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes for his remarkable performance.  Peter Djigirr, Bobby Bunungurr and Frances Djulibing among many others offer fine support as town residents and people Charlie encounters in his odyssey.   Luke Ford’s performance as the local cop is the film’s only false note as his blustering style – which worked fine in the Packer telemovie – feels over-the-top here.

As a striking piece of humanist cinema and an important depiction of a sadly overlooked part of our nation, Charlie’s Country is one of this year’s essential Australian films.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Rolf de Heer.

Release date: 17th July 2014

Running time:  108 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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