It hits hard and leaves bruises.
Reviewing films at a festival, especially one as packed as the MIFF, you remember most the films that hit you the hardest. Ambitious in intention, broad in scope and breathless in pace, Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day is the filmic equivalent of a go-for-broke swing at its audience. While early reviews suggest a swing and a miss was the case for some critics, I can say the film hit me hard, reducing all its imperfections and leaving a powerful, topical emotional drama.
With a screenplay penned by Stephen M Irwin, Australia Day is in the tradition of ensemble dramas like Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) and Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), where a large cast of characters’ lives gradually intersect, heading towards some final dramatic payoff. Irwin’s script takes the controversial Australian holiday as its backdrop, presenting Brisbane and the nation at large as a melting pot bubbling over with simmering racial tensions, conflicts over masculinity and economic disgruntlement. January 25 is a bloody hot day; here, everybody’s about to burst into flames.
Early on in the film, a gang of white, young Aussies are closing in on indigenous April Tucker (Miah Madden). Draped in Australian flags and pissed at midday, they use the critical term ‘Invasion day’ to mock her, gloating, ‘It’s ours now!’ April is on the run from a crime scene for which she believes she’ll be persecuted, while the pursuing Constable Liz Jamieson (indigenous actress Jacy Lewis) just wants to talk to her. Critics took issue with the Irwin’s somewhat on-the-nose script, and it does have a few preachy sections, but subtle moments like these show the white Australian tendency to ridicule something instead of dealing with it. ‘Invasion day’ was supposed to encourage Australians to confront the reality of January 25. Here, Irwin shows how willingly some will turn it into throwaway piece of slang.
Stenders’ camera swoops and dips, using plenty of long takes, showed a penchant for Boxing Day (2007). Befitting the dramatic camera movements, Matteo Zingales’ score is full of thundering drum beats and low, droning ambience. It works better with some stories than others, which is often the case with ensemble drama films – audiences are bound to weigh the stories up against each other. For instance, while April’s story is poignant, its climactic moments don’t match up with disgruntled farmer Terry Friedman’s (Bryan Brown) attempts to help Mandarin-speaking young girl Lan Chang (Jenny Wu) escape the abusive man who claims to be her father. The way these stories intersect and hurtle towards their conclusion is a little mismatched, but the catharsis is there if you can ignore the little irksome things.
Stenders and Irwin’s Australia Day deserves attention, and not just for its controversial subject matter. It features a diverse cast and some electrifying performances from Puberty Blues alums Isabelle Cornish and Sean Keenan, while also demonstrating the immense acting talent in Australia’s multicultural community. It may not have the devastating precision of Ben Young’s masterful Hounds of Love (2017), but the film shows there’s still a few fighting spirits in the Australian film industry.