Aussie cinema projected the ‘land down under’ onto a global stage
PUBLISHED: 19:00 13 July 2018
The Australian film industry has always punched above its weight. It has produced some stunning movies and some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at the glories of Aussie-wood
Australia may seem a long way from Hollywood but some of the world’s biggest stars have emerged from the land down under.
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Mel Gibson, Toni Collette, Geoffrey Rush, Margot Robbie, Heath Ledger and Errol Flynn all got their start in Australia’s thriving film industry along with off-shore imports like Sam Neill, Russell Crowe and Lucy Lawless who popped across from New Zealand.
Directors like George Miller, Baz Luhrmann, Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, PJ Hogan, Philip Noyce and Fred Schepsi learnt their trade in Australian film and TV before finding greater opportunities and bigger budgets in Hollywood.
Australian cinema had a booming local following since the early days of the silent era. In fact Australia produced one of the earliest known feature films, The History of the Kelly Gang, released in 1906, the story of the notorious Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly. The violent outback production pre-dated Hollywood’s first full-length features by more than a decade and was to all intents and purposes a prototype western – albeit with more kangaroos.
Aussie cinema thrived during the 1920s and 30s but really came into its own during the 1950s when Britain’s Ealing Studios went down under to film their own British colonial westerns such as The Sundowners and war films like The Desert Rats. In the process they created new stars like Chips Rafferty and Peter Finch.
But, it was in the 1970s that Australian cinema really took off and gained a place on the world stage. It was Peter Weir, who later gained fame directing Witness with Harrison Ford and The Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams, who first made a huge impression with the horror-comedy The Cars That Ate Paris in 1974 and the disturbing Picnic at Hanging Rock that attracted audiences and announced that something special was happening in Aussie cinema.
This was swiftly followed in 1979 by George Miller’s dystopian road movie Mad Max which exploded in cinemas around the world and made then unknown theatre actor Mel Gibson into a huge star. Suddenly, Aussie cinema was huge. Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant told the story of an Aussie soldier during The Boer War and was swiftly followed by another Peter Weir hit Gallipoli which starred Mel Gibson, detailing Australia’s tragic losses in the First World War then Paul Hogan attracted world-wide attention with his hit outback movie Crocodile Dundee.
Australian cinema has remained a popular and critical hit ever since. Here are my top Aussie films and one glorious dud.
Dead Calm (1989)
A tense pyschological thriller from director Philip Noyce and was an early hit for Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill. Filmed around the Great Barrier Reef, the plot, taken from a best-selling novel, focuses on a married couple (Kidman and Neill) who are sailing a yacht through the Pacific. They encounter a damaged boat and a distraught man (Billy Zane). Their efforts to help lead them into dark and disturbing waters.
The Piano (1993)
Oscar-winning film from New Zealand director Jane Campian starring Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin and Harvey Keitel. Set during the 19th century, this huge critical and commercial hit, tells the story of a mute piano player and her daughter, in a backwater town on the west coast of New Zealand. The film revolves around the musician’s passion for the piano, how she uses it to communicate, and her efforts to regain her instrument after it is sold by her new husband.
Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)
This comedy-drama film was a surprise worldwide hit picking up a shoulder-bag full of Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes along the way. Written and directed by Stephan Elliott, the plot follows two drag queens, played by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, and a transgender woman (Terence Stamp) as they journey across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus that they have named “Priscilla”. They make a huge impression on the people they meet.
Oscar-winning bio-pic telling the life story of acclaimed pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions. Noah Taylor played Helfgott as a young prodigy but it was Geoffrey Rush who nabbed the Best Actor Oscar for his role as the adult concert performer.
The Dish (2000)
Terrific feelgood movie which tells the true story of the Parkes Observatory and its role in relaying live television of man’s first steps on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The film, which stars Sam Neill, was Australia’s highest grossing movie that year and went onto become a sleeper hit around the world. It’s a movie which puts a small, beautifully observed, tight-knit community onto a world stage. The Parkes facility, placed in the middle of a vast sheep paddock, is still used by NASA.
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann. This extravagant jukebox musical tells the story of a young English poet/writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls in love with the star of the Moulin Rouge, cabaret actress and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). Jim Broadbent steals the film as Harold Zidler, the larger-than-life owner of the Paris night-club. It was nominated for eight Oscars, won two, and was the first musical nominated for Best Picture in 10 years. Baz Luhrmann was also responsible for Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet.
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
This moving Australian drama, directed by Phillip Noyce, is loosely based on a true story concerning mixed-race Aboriginal girls who ran away from the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth, Western Australia, to return to their Aboriginal families. Set in 1931, the film follows the Aboriginal girls as they walk for nine weeks along 1,500 miles of the Australian rabbit-proof fence to return to their community at Jigalong, while being pursued by white law enforcement authorities (Kenneth Branagh) and an Aboriginal tracker.
Worst movie: Australia (2008)
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star in this glossy, epic soap-opera of a movie from Baz Luhrmann which purports to tell the story of Australia’s role in World War II. It has some wonderful set-piece moments (the cattle stampede is spectacular) and some glorious cinematography but the Luhrmann magic, which relies on a sense of heightened reality, deserts him this time and the result is a largely incoherent, ham-fisted mess.