As we waited impatiently in the queue at Hoyts Melbourne Central today to purchase our tickets for Bran Nue Dae, Chris asked me what the last Australian movie we’d seen was. After much contemplation, we drew a blank after the laugh-a-minute cheerfest The Proposition, which was such a long time ago in movie terms that I became quite astonished. Now, I’m not going to turn this into one of those insufferable lectures about How We Should All Go See Australian Movies Even If They Look Awful, because I don’t believe that to be true. But I was shocked to realise it had been so long since I’d last seen something Australian advertised and been actually excited to see it. And I was excited about Bran Nue Dae, even though it pains my spellcheck to say so.
Originally a stage musical first performed in the early nineties, Bran Nue Dae tells the story of Willie, a young man sent from his beloved Broome to boarding school in Perth, where he is training to be a priest. But in leaving behind the beautiful Rosie, played by one of Australian Idol’s few credible alumni in Jessica Mauboy, he realises perhaps he doesn’t want to be a priest, but in fact wants to live in the glorious place he calls home and have a few 1960s-clothed smooches with Rosie in the sand dunes. His escape from school is hindered by the tracking by the school’s head, a German-toned and camp Geoffrey Rush with an expression sufficiently crazed by power and religion and the theft of Cherry Ripes.
It’s great fun, this movie, full of good rockin’ songs and great acting by Rocky McKenzie as the adorable Willie. Magda Szubanski gets high billing but is in the movie for about forty seconds in total, and really what credit there is should go to her fabulous and distracting cleavage. Other well-known stars are the eternally endearing Ernie Dingo; Deborah Mailman as an alarming character who takes Willie to a tourist attraction neither he nor you will ever forget; a red-eyed Tom Budge, who’s in pretty much every Australian movie/show of the past decade; Missy Higgins, as a fairly insufferable hippie who is happy to jump on every bandwagon that pootles by; and musical smoothie Dan Sultan as Willie’s love rival and someone who needs a slap upside the head. I loved Bran Nue Dae, no doubt; it’s one of the better modern stage-to-screen musicals I’ve seen. (I specify “modern” as I haven’t really seen that many pre-1980s musicals. Please don’t judge me too harshly.) Where the appalling redo of The Producers made no use of sets, this had lush landscapes, dusty roads and was a festival for the eyes.
There is a part of me that doesn’t want to criticise the movie at all. Perhaps I’m secretly an Australia-lover after all underneath this cynical, emo shell. But I must resist this patriotic streak. A movie doesn’t have to be flawless to be good. And Bran Nue Dae is not flawless.
I’m not sure if it’s the dubbing, or what, but some of the musical numbers feel pasted on top of the actual movie in respect to audio. With no background sounds to accompany it, you can never pretend that they’re just naturally bursting into song in the middle of a classroom or in a car; it feels like someone’s playing the CD and everyone’s miming, sometimes not that well. The obsession with head/mid shots meant that occasionally when people were dancing, you couldn’t see their feet, just their hands flailing about—the framing and editing made the dance numbers much milder than expected. Some of the characters were a little two-dimensional, like Dan Sultan’s evil Lester with his grand total of no redeeming features, and Rush’s ragey and racist Father Benedictus. The scenery, while great, could still have been expanded upon to include more outback shots. Still, for a musical, it didn’t feel too constrained in that respect.
Despite the awkward framing, I loved a scene on the back of a truck when a bunch of rawther attractive young Aboriginal men splash white paint over each other and dance to, unexpectedly, the song Zorba the Greek. Jessica Mauboy’s hopeful confusion lights up the screen, and she is beautiful. The movie doesn’t pretend there isn’t a grittier side of an otherwise idyllically portrayed Aboriginal life, with alcohol addiction playing a supporting role, but it’s supposed to be an upbeat, feelgood type movie and it achieves that. Apart from an awkward, squicky little subplot ending with a disrespectful man shacking up with someone who appears to have little respect for herself, and us supposed to cheer for it, the movie—with a big explosion of surprise reveal after surprise reveal—ends on a chirpy, singalong high on the track “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine”, which you’ll find yourself singing quietly along to with the rest of the audience. And by the end, you’ll probably sincerely wish you were an Aborigine too, because it clearly brings some kind of singing talent that I for one have missed.