Director: Nick Parsons
Stars: Bryan Brown, Ernie Dingo, Aaron Pedersen, Angie Milliken
Second viewing, via VHS
I first watched Dead Heart back in 2000, as part of a course at university. In recent days I’ve been thinking back on all the other Australian films I studied at university (in a degree comprising various screen and literature courses, including one specifically on Australian cinema, there were quite a few) and pondering where those films have landed, culturally speaking, in subsequent years. Wake in Fright, which we watched on a scratchy, dog-eared print, has enjoyed a critical and cultural resurgence in recent years and is soon to be adapted for television by the director of Red Dog. Other films, such as A Sunday Too Far Away and Two Hands, have sort of plateaued, remaining constant in their standing. And others like Dead Heart, then only a few years old, have faded from the spotlight and aren’t really part of the cultural conversation. In this particular case, it’s a shame, because Dead Heart is an excellent flick.
The film takes place in Walla Walla, a small outback town with a predominantly Indigenous population. Ray Lorkin (Bryan Brown) is a senior police officer imposing “white fella” law on the local Indigenous community, with priest David (Ernie Dingo) a middleman between the white and black citizens. Ray’s approach to maintaining order incurs the wrath of Aboriginal elder Poppy (Gnarnayarrahe Waitairie). Also incurring Poppy’s anger is Tony (Aaron Pedersen), a young Indigenous man having an affair with white woman Kate (Angie Milliken), wife of the local schoolteacher Les (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). When Tony is killed, Ray is tasked with investigating, leading to further clashes with Poppy, the black community, and his white counterparts.
Dead Heart originated as a stage play scripted by Nick Parsons and mounted by Belvoir St Theatre. Parsons adapted and directed his play for the screen, and the film has the thematic texture and meat of a sturdy piece of theatre. Characters are layered, flawed but sympathetic, and Parsons uses them as vehicles to showcase different perspectives on – and pose provocative questions about – contemporary and historical black-white relations. Ray’s approach to imposing white law is patriarchal and dictatorial, and for much of the film he appears a blatant racist, but his hard line approach stems from a compassion and conviction that he’s doing the right thing, however warped and misguided. Parsons and Brown don’t shy away from the inherent ugliness of much of what Ray does, but are also empathetic to a degree. Similarly, Poppy’s machinations against Ray are not painted in a flattering light, but are justified as a survival mechanism within the context of lifelong injustices suffered. Multiple other vantage points are expressed in the film, each shaded and sympathetic in some way: there’s David, divided between his Christian faith and black heritage, neither white fella nor black fella but “just a fella”; Tony, fond of his country but thoroughly modern and heedless towards traditions; Les, earnest in his liking of the land and mission to educate but fatally ill-suited to his environment; and Kate, who finds romantic solace in these harsh surrounds but in doing so betrays her husband and violates local customs.
While Dead Heart has the texture of a play, this screen adaptation never feels theatrical. This is partly due to the fact that much of the action transpires in exteriors rather than interiors, ensuring no creaky stage-bound quality sets in. But on top of that, the film feels cinematic, particularly in its editing: see, for example, a scene that cuts back & forth between one of David’s services and Tony and Kate’s tryst in a sacred site, making excellent use of montage, composition, sound, and juxtaposition. Whilst there’s a certain formal inelegance to Dead Heart compared to other recent depictions of Aboriginal experiences on film – see, for example, recent films by Ivan Sen and Rolf de Heer – those rough edges are fitting to the tone of the film and the town & environs of Walla Walla: coarse, severe, and fraught with tensions.
Bryan Brown is such a staple of Australian film, and so seemingly effortless in his delivery, that it’s easy to forget how enormously talented he is. While he has a “type” that he frequently errs towards, Ray is a complex creation and Brown invests him with gravitas. Pedersen is extremely charismatic in his fleeting screentime, and Dingo, Waitairie, Milliken, Fitz-Gerald, and the rest of the cast (including John Jarratt in a minor role as an opportunistic academic) are uniformly first-rate.
In summary: Dead Heart is excellent and criminally underrated. It has thematic heft, muscular filmmaking, strong performances, and the provocative questions it poses remain pertinent twenty years later. Plus it’s a terrific thriller. A sound investment of your time.
Next week: John Duigan’s Sirens (1993), the first of two consecutive films about artist Norman Lindsay.