Director: George Whaley
Stars: Leo McKern, Geoffrey Rush, Joan Sutherland, Noah Taylor, Ray Barrett, Barry Otto, Essie Davis, David Field
First viewing, via DVD
The characters of Dad, Dave, and the rest of the Rudd farming family date back over 100 years. Author Steele Rudd (aka Arthur Hoey Davis) began composing Dad and Dave’s adventures in the late 1800s, and the first 26 stories were collected into the book On Our Selection in 1899. Further adventures followed and the characters went on to appear in other mediums: there was a stage play in the 1910s; a silent film in 1920; a quartet of sound films directed by Ken G. Hall starting in 1932; and a radio series spanning from the late 1930s to early 1950s. While the characters haven’t figured in the cultural landscape too prominently in recent years, there’s no denying their place in popular culture: a large billboard for 1938’s Dad and Dave Goes to Town (which marked the film debut of Peter Finch) stands alongside similar commemorative billboards for Jedda, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Storm Boy, and Crocodile Dundee at Sydney’s Moore Park/Fox Studios entertainment precinct.
George Whaley’s 1995 film Dad and Dave: On Our Selection revived the characters for late twentieth century audiences, and was designed to celebrate that year’s centenary of Australian cinema, as declared in the film’s end credits. The film adapts a number of Rudd’s stories and chronicles the exploits of the Rudd family and farm. Dad (Leo McKern) runs for state parliament against the slippery JP Riley (Barry Otto); Mother (Joan Sutherland) tends to house and home; oldest son Dave (Geoffrey Rush) falls in love, as does sister Kate (Essie Davis); and wayward son Dan (David Field) proves a miscreant, to name just a few story threads.
The mission statement of Down Under Flix is to draw attention to Australian films that are “obscure, forgotten, neglected, or under-appreciated”. While naturally those parameters are fluid, I sometimes angst over whether or not a film I’ve chosen really fits that bill. Dad and Dave is the first film covered on Down Under Flix that cracked a million dollars at the local box office ($1,222,051 to be precise, and in 1995 dollars; that’d be over 2 million today) so on the surface it appears to have been a moderate success. However, as a film intended to celebrate Australian cinema’s centenary, that haul was viewed as disappointing. Of course, research shows that cinema takings generally account for only 10% of a film’s viewing history, so this should never be treated as sole measure of a film’s success or resilience. Even so, for a film that made a reasonable showing and carried a certain pomp and ceremony, it feels like this one has really slipped off the radar.
It’s a pity, because Dad and Dave has its charms. A big part of that charm is just how anomalous the film feels. From its sepia-tinted opening sequence, quickly followed by the film’s theme song courtesy of country music star John Williamson (see the trailer below), the film’s message is very clear: Dad and Dave, like its source, is unapologetically old-fashioned, old-school, and old-timey. In the wake of films like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – flamboyant films with progressive, postmodern leanings and alternative takes on Australian societal norms – it’s easy to see why Dad and Dave, with its nostalgia for battlers past rather than present, was somewhat overshadowed. But its sincerity, a rare commodity these days, makes for amiable viewing.
I hadn’t intended to discuss two Geoffrey Rush films in a row (much as I hadn’t intended to do two Chris Haywood ones earlier this month) but it’s made for fascinating viewing. Rush is, no doubt, one of the greats, and by the time of last week’s film Swimming Upstream, he was a three-time Academy Award nominee (and winner for Shine). He’d portrayed David Helfgott, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Marquis de Sade, and Leon Trotsky among others, and his presence brought a certain prestige to local productions (e.g. Lantana, Ned Kelly). However, in Dad and Dave, made just eight years earlier and one year before Shine, Rush was a stage veteran returning to film after a long hiatus. Playing the hard-working, dim bulb senior child of the Rudd family, Rush’s work is selfless, low-key and un-showy (I mean, four years later, he’d be doing this).
Leo McKern is suitably cantankerous and endearing as Dave, and opera star Joan Sutherland, while slightly mannered and never entirely loose on camera, brings a grace and dignified presence as the family matriarch. Director George Whaley, himself a veteran actor (and responsible for steering two other classic pieces of Australian fiction to screens, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange), also elicits fun work from the rest of his ensemble, including the aforementioned Field, Davis, and Otto, as well as Noah Taylor (likewise a year before Shine), Ray Barrett, and Robert Menzies (one of two local actors, alongside John Howard, who share a name with a former Prime Minister).
In summary: In Life magazine in 1904, Steele Rudd advised aspiring authors that “Should England call, by all means pack up and clear; but, until she does, play in your own backyards – write in Australia, on Australia, for Australia”. The makers of Dad and Dave: On Our Selection clearly took this advice to heart, forging an affectionate tribute to battlers and icons of yore. It’s not bold or big on laughs, and it’s a hard film to love, but it’s a very, very easy film to like.
Next week: Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992).