Australia Day review: 'A few cans short of a barbecue'

Kriv Stenders' Australia Day screens at MIFF 2017.
Kriv Stenders' Australia Day screens at MIFF 2017.

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(MA15+) 98 minutes

Australia Day is a few cans short of a barbecue. Brisbane writer Stephen M. Irwin piles three stories on his palette and tries to paint a large canvas of what is wrong with the country. Then Brisbane-born director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) takes an already busy script and applies a suite of directorial flourishes, to give it pace and energy and drive.

The result is that Brisbane cops a pasting from a movie that is as mechanical as the town hall clock. Irwin is both a novelist and a screenwriter but those two impulses are hard to reconcile: he attempts to write a novel on screen. Very few screenwriters can bring that off. Even fewer directors can make three equal storylines work together. They both know the first rule of screenwriting - it's all about structure - but they try to solve those problems with technique. Pace is no substitute; nor is violence or big swooping aerial shots or slow-motion action.

The day dawns hot on this particular Australia Day in the northern capital, but we are off at pace. An Aboriginal teenage girl runs from something, her head stained with blood; a young dark-skinned man runs from two white youths, in another suburb; a terrified Asian girl runs through the back of some industrial horror landscape. So far it looks promising. Stenders doesn't muck about. We're caught up. Is this Australia Day or Australian racial violence day?

Just as quickly, the plot opens out. An Aboriginal teenage girl has been killed in a police pursuit when her car rolled. Constable Sonya Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens) is distraught. She was the pursuer and she knew the girls in the car and now the younger sister April (Miah Madden) has taken off - the first running teenager we met. The dark-skinned young man is Sami (Elias Anton), from a family of Middle Eastern migrants. Brothers Dean and Jason, rugby league-loving suburban skippy boys, think he raped their sister Chloe (Isabelle Cornish) and gave her drugs. Sami is now tied up in their basement, awaiting judgment. The Chinese running girl (Jenny Wu) escapes her pursuer by jumping into a ute driven by Bryan Brown, playing a farmer. When we see that her pursuer is Chinese, we can guess the kind of place from which she has escaped.

So now we have three storylines, on three broad themes: Indigenous Australians versus police, White Australia versus Arab Australia, and human trafficking. When we find out that Terry (Brown) has lost his farm to the bank, we can add rural disintegration to the mix. But there's more, much more. Irwin keeps adding complications and some are inventive. The distraught female police officer is Aboriginal. Sami's brother Yaghoub (Phoenix Raei) sells drugs, which evens up the ethical balance in the ethnic gang battle.

There is no shortage of ambition in these stories. It's a full vision of the hell of Australian race relations. It reminded me of one of those terrifying Bosch landscapes, where all of humanity is going to the dogs in a tableau of debauchery. Except that debauchery would be more fun. This vision of Australia is unreservedly bleak and it just gets bleaker.

That's not a criticism. Taxi Driver is unrelentingly bleak too and it is a masterpiece. Robert Altman's kaleidoscope of American life in Nashville is too, and it balanced even more stories. I'm not concerned with what Stenders and Irwin are trying to say about Australia, just the way they are saying it - and for the most part, they do it here with plodding predictability.

The exception is the story built around the towering presence of Bryan Brown, who gives the movie a certain grace, playing an old warrior on hard times. Brown uses his capacity for stillness with great effect, to suggest weight in his character. He's the conscience of the film and he carries that responsibility well. The film might have worked a lot better if it was structured around his storyline - with the other two stories in support. Equal weight and time just gives Stenders a headache when he tries to bring all three stories to a head at the same time. By the end, it's like three possums fighting in a hessian bag.

This story Australia Day review: 'A few cans short of a barbecue' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.