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Charlie’s Country – film review

July 15, 2014


Perhaps the most socially important Aussie film of recent times.

Reviewed on Wednesday 9th July 2014

charlies country - david gulpilil

Directed by Rolf de Heer. Written by David Gulpilil & Rolf de Heer. Starring: David Gulpilil. Running time: 108 mins.

Veteran Aussie actor David Gulpilil plays Charlie; an indigenous old-timer struggling to maintain his cultural heritage (and his dignity) in the face of increasingly draconian laws implemented as part of the notorious Northern Territory government intervention program (apparently created in order to curb the scourge of alcoholism amongst the Aboriginal population living in remote outback communities). We first meet Charlie, living alone in a humpy (a makeshift shelter) in one such community – where he happily gives up his weekly allowance to members of his extended family and bums handfulls of cigarettes under the pretense of smoking them himself – only to later dispose of them in his own camp fire (revealing it to be his attempt to force his compatriots to curb their intake of harmful tobacco). Charlie’s relationship with the local cops (who are meant to enforce the intervention) is at first conciliatory, with Charlie assisting them in tracking down cannabis dealers – but the absurdity of white fellas’ rules in the eyes of black fellas (they confiscate his newly-made hunting spear; declaring it to be an offensive weapon) – forces him into a position where he crosses over to the ‘wrong side’ of the law.

This, Rolf de Heer’s latest film (co-written with David Gulpilil), is clearly inspired by the actor’s own life experiences and was selected into competition in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival – where Gulpilil himself was named Best Actor. A veteran of over thirty films and TV series, the sixty-one year old Aboriginal performer is without a doubt an Australian cultural icon and national living treasure; with some of his best remembered roles featured in such films as Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout (his big-screen debut with Jenny Agutter), Peter Weir’s The Last Wave in 1977 and Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

Despite the seriousness of the plight of present-day Aboriginals, the film itself is surprisingly less earnest or maudlin than one would expect. In fact, the message     the film ultimately delivers is an extremely positive one; full of great promise and optimism. And there are some genuine moments of levity woven throughout. For example; Charlie and his best mate Pete’s good-natured bush humor is beautifully conveyed via their mechanical ingenuity in keeping a vehicle on the road which     would otherwise be in the mechanic’s shop in pieces.

The cinematography by Ian Jones (who had lensed Rolf’s previous indigenous-themed films The Tracker and Ten Canoes) again captures the primal beauty of     the Aussie outback – in this case the wetlands of the Northern Territory’s top end. Likewise, the multi-layered sound design by James Currie and his team is superb in conveying the distinctive ambience of these remote locales (particularly in the use of insect sounds). And the day-to-day monotony of jail is brilliantly conveyed by de Heer and his long-time film editor Tania Nehme – recalling the opening sequence from the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (albeit – in a far less amusing manner). If I were to have any quibbles – it would be during an extended sequence where Charlie goes bush; where he verbalizes his thoughts to himself (and in doing so – to us) which teeters at times on the brink of being a little too ‘on the nose’ – however, the effortless believability of Gulpilil’s performance ultimately saves this from             being a major issue.

Being an incredibly moving and heartfelt portrait of the man himself; this movie undoubtedly belongs to David Gulpilil – as he appears in virtually every scene.       And regardless of one’s own color or cultural background; his performance here     alone makes this a must-see – a film which all Aussies can embrace and feel suitably proud of. Absolutely one of the best films of the year.

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace-Nova Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide, July 9th 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. Wonderful review! Really looking forward to seeing this one.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Anna. 🙂 Yeah, it’s a terrific film and David Gulpilil is amazing.

  2. Podargus permalink

    I saw this movie recently. Deceptively simple,very moving and true to life.

  3. gregory moss permalink

    Congratulations to Rolf de Heer and everyone involved in the making of CHARLIE’S COUNTRY for their five nominations in the upcoming AACTA awards (Australia’s own Oscars) to be announced in January 2015 … Nominations are for the following categories: Best Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound and David Gulpilil for Best Lead Actor … I’d love to see David take out the gong for his incredibly brave and moving performance.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Congratulations to the wonderful David Gulpilil for his well deserved win as Best Lead Actor at last night’s AACTA awards! Well deserved indeed!

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