Film review: ‘HIGH GROUND’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Set in Australia’s colonial past and focused on the pursuit of an aboriginal man by white police, High Ground plays like a companion piece to Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country.  While its plot lacks the nuance and complexity of Sweet Country, its visual artistry is almost as impressive and this confronting story of white brutality and aboriginal resistance is nearly as powerful.

At the film’s centre is Arnhem Land aboriginal man Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) who, as a child in 1919, sees his family slaughtered by white military police.  Twelve years later, after being taken to a nearby Christian mission, Gutjuk is recruited as a tracker to help hunt down his uncle, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) who survived the massacre and is now wreaking revenge on white settlers.  As he begins to empathise with his uncle’s quest, Gutjuk’s loyalties are tested when he befriends the man charged with the responsibility of finding Baywarra, former soldier Travis (Simon Baker) who was a sniper in the original massacre but bitterly regrets his involvement.

While its storyline is limited and mostly features white soldiers and aboriginal warriors tracking each other through the bush, this is still a remarkably potent film.  Its depiction of the officially sanctioned slaughter of indigenous people is particularly confronting.  Also, by drawing us into the characters’ worlds – particularly those of Gutjuk and Travis – the film invests events with a powerful emotional gut punch.

Featuring wonderfully vivid cinematography from Andrew Commis (who lensed the recent Aussie film Baby teeth), High Ground captures both the expansive majesty of Arnhem Land as well as the characters’ intimate emotions and anguish.

Young Jacob Junior Nayinggul, in his first film, is terrific giving Gutjuk a striking mix of youthful innocence, dignity, precocious wisdom and bitter resentment.  In his typical laconic style, Baker quietly invests the character of Travis with both heroism and palpable regret.  As Eddy, Travis’ former partner-in-combat turned nemesis, Callan Mulvey is appropriately menacing if a little familiar as the angry, sweaty, moustachioed white bully.  Jack Thompson also invests the film with a touch of class as the seemingly avuncular but ultimately ruthless authoritarian police chief pursuing Baywara.  As the rebellious Baywara, Sean Mununggurr is a magnetic screen presence.

Like the similarly themed Nightingale, some will find this film difficult to watch as it is often violent with a surprising number of shooting deaths and the scenes of the initial massacre evoking atrocities like the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam.  Like Nightingale and Sweet Country, though, this is a powerful and important examination of a shameful part of Australia’s history.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Stephen Johnson.

Release date: 28th Jan 2021.

Running time: 104 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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