The notion of making a fun-filled musical comedy about life among aborigines in the Australian outback in the late ’60s might seem a bit curious on the surface, rather like Americans building an evening of escapist entertainment out of the civil rights struggle of the ’60s or the Trail of Tears in 1831. But, of course, it is possible for people to live...read more
The notion of making a fun-filled musical comedy about life among aborigines in the Australian outback in the late ’60s might seem a bit curious on the surface, rather like Americans building an evening of escapist entertainment out of the civil rights struggle of the ’60s or the Trail of Tears in 1831. But, of course, it is possible for people to live lives full of adventure and joy under difficult circumstances, and the movie Bran Nue Dae spins a tale that doesn’t ignore the struggles of indigenous people, but tells their story with lots of humor, music, and dancing; it focuses on trials and tribulations common to all sorts of people, no matter where they live, rather than the adversities specific to their situation.
Bran Nue Dae stars Rocky McKenzie as Willie, a teenager coming of age in Broome, a rugged town in Western Australia dominated by the aborigine community. Willie’s mother is a deeply religious woman who wants her son to become a priest, but while Willie doesn’t want to disappoint his mom, he’d rather become a fisherman, and he’s far too infatuated with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), a pretty girl who attends the same church, to swear off women even though he’s too shy to ask her out on a date. Willie’s mother has shipped him off to a Catholic seminary in Perth, where Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), a priest with a peculiar German accent, rules with an iron fist. When Willie confesses to stealing some sweets from the seminary’s kitchen, Father Benedictus declares with disgust that he knew an aborigine would never amount to anything, and Willie angrily runs away. With nowhere to go and Broome over 1,300 miles away, Willie spends the night in a hobo camp, where he discovers his long-lost uncle, Tadpole (Ernie Dingo). Under the influence, Tadpole promises Willie that he’ll take him home to Broome, but the next morning he isn’t sure how to make that happen. Tadpole saves the day when he fakes being hit by a psychedelic van driven by a high-strung German hippie named Slippery (Tom Budge) and his far-mellower Aussie girlfriend, Annie (Missy Higgins). Tadpole tells the flower children that he and Willie are on a vision quest, and while Slippery seems dubious, Annie falls for it and they make their way across the plains to Broome, though Father Benedictus is still determined make Willie face his punishment. And though Willie longs to see Rosie, he’s not sure where he stands with her, as she’s caught the eye of Lester (Dan Sultan), the leader of a local rock band who thinks she has star quality.
Bran Nue Dae was a popular, long-running stage musical in Australia before being brought to the screen, and while director Rachel Perkins gives the story a lively and fast-paced presentation on film, in many respects it still feels like a theater piece. Like many musicals, the story is a bit skimpy, the characters lack a certain depth, they burst into song at curious moments (made all the more awkward by the realism of the film’s settings), and some of them are there to add color rather than serve the narrative. While the excitement and presence of a live performance can compensate for these flaws, on film they seem pretty obvious, and it doesn’t help that Rocky McKenzie as Willie and Jessica Mauboy as Rosie are novice actors who look good but have trouble filling out their characters, especially when the supporting actors outclass them at nearly every turn. Veteran actor and comedian Ernie Dingo is funny without sacrificing his dignity as Tadpole (despite the character’s fondness for Rolf Harris), pop singer Missy Higgins’ charm and simple beauty serve her well as the flighty Annie, and Geoffrey Rush seems to be having a splendid time as the hard-nosed priest, making the most of his menace as well as his goofiness. The songs by Jimmy Chi, an influential aboriginal rock musician with the band Kuckles, are strong even when their staging seems iffy and they appear with little warning, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and production designer Felicity Abbott make the film a pleasure to look at, capturing the rough-hewn beauty of Western Australia without adding too much excess polish. Ultimately, Bran Nue Dae is good fun, but it’s also light enough that it could blow away in a strong breeze, and given the strength of Jimmy Chi’s songs (with their often-pointed messages) and the gravity of the film’s subtext, this movie doesn’t live up to its potential, offering some songs and laughs when it could have done that and a lot more.