One Night the Moon (2001)

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Director: Rachel Perkins

Stars: Paul Kelly, Kaarin Fairfax, Kelton Pall

First viewing, via DVD

In the opening scene of One Night the Moon, farmer Jim Ryan (Paul Kelly) awakens at his kitchen table. An empty bottle stands at his side, a remnant from a night of drinking to numb his pain. But the pain waits in readiness for him that morning, made clear when he launches into song about having naught to live for. He retrieves his rifle, passes an empty child’s bedroom, then his own bedroom where his wife Rose (Kaarin Fairfax, also Kelly’s offscreen wife) lies crumpled and defeated, then wanders out into the harsh outback. In these few minutes One Night the Moon makes two things abundantly clear. Firstly, it’s a musical, and secondly, it’s not one of the toe-tapping, knee-slapping variety. Where some of the best movie musicals have an inherent weightlessness to them, One Night the Moon is all weight: oppressive, foreboding weight.

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Set in 1932 and inspired by true events, One Night the Moon depicts the disappearance and search for a young girl (played by the offscreen daughter of Kelly and Fairfax, Memphis Kelly) and the resulting emotional fallout. The local constabulary (headed by Chris Haywood and David Field) are deployed to investigate, but Jim refuses to let Aboriginal tracker Albert Yang (Kelton Pall) assist with the hunt for his daughter on his land. Despite the white search party’s lack of success and Albert’s continued overtures that they’re looking in the wrong places, Jim stubbornly refuses to relent.

Director Rachel Perkins’ debut feature Radiance was the first film by a female director spotlighted on Down Under Flix (see our review here). That piece included some troubling statistics about the number of women filmmakers in the Australian film industry, and more recent reports indicate that things aren’t really getting better. Perkins is a necessary and vital presence in local cinema: look no further than her bold choice of a 57-minute musical retelling of a tragic historical incident for her sophomore feature (or, for that matter, her savvy choice to return to the musical genre a few years later with the feature-length, commercially slicker Bran Nue Dae).

One Night the Moon balances realism and theatricality. On the one hand, it’s grounded by its setting and protagonists – weathered, dog-eared individuals occupying severe country terrain – but on the other hand, it’s liberated from realism by the innate excesses of its genre. Bolstered by music and song and not tethered to naturalism, Perkins and co play with some big symbols and amplify even minor dramatic moments, telling their story in broad, evocative brush strokes. The phrase “epic but intimate” is a cliché, but it very much applies here: One Night the Moon is essentially a three-hander human drama comprising Jim, Rose and Albert that also unfolds against a vast landscape. The film was shot in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges (also seen onscreen in recent years in Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker, The Rover, and Wolf Creek 2), and its makers milk the contrast between the wide, unforgiving environment and the tininess of its occupants, alternating between tight close-ups of the actors’ pained, knotted faces and wider shots pulling back to isolate them in their surrounds. The presence of music and song also helps achieve this “epic but intimate” effect, the score adding grandeur to even the minutest of human gestures and expressions, investing them with a sense of the operatic.

The film’s music is composed by Mairead Hannan (who initiated the project), Kev Carmody, and Kelly. Kelly’s screen presence is slightly limited (not uncommon with musicians on film) but this fits the characterisation of the proud, pig-headed Jim, and the actor-musician finds expressiveness in his natural forte via Jim’s singing. Fairfax, an actress with a long body of work (including television adaptations of Ruth Park’s Poor Man’s Orange and Harp in the South as well as Young Einstein), fares better as the family matriarch, prohibited by gender laws and propriety of the era from taking any meaningful, decisive action. Pall also does great work as tracker Albert, similarly frustrated by the constraints of the time and torn between resignation to his lot, anger at his dispossessors, and sympathy for the missing child.

One Night the Moon belongs to a long cinematic tradition of the Australian outback preying upon visitors. Indeed, when the young child is drawn out of her home at night, seemingly hypnotised by the moon, it is evocative of the genre’s most iconic work, Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which Miranda and her friends are called by some unknowable force to some unknowable fate. Civilised trespassers get ensnared and damaged by their uncivilised surrounds frequently in Australian cinema, whether at the hands of the environment itself (Picnic at Hanging Rock, both original and remake of Long Weekend), the animals that occupy it (Razorback), or the human animals who’ve taken residence (Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek, the film that launched this website Welcome to Woop Woop). In all these flicks, the land fights back against those who don’t belong, or those who try to tame and claim it.

This motif also enables Perkins’ film to address the issue of Aboriginal dispossession, with Jim reprimanded not only for his misguided pride but his original colonisation of the land and, symbolically speaking, the transgressions that preceded him. The film was released in 2001, when the issue of reconciliation and public apology for white Australia’s misdemeanours against Indigenous Australians was a source of debate under the Howard Government. Whilst a public apology would eventuate under the succeeding Rudd Government, a quote at the end of One Night the Moon – attributed to Perkins’ father, the Indigenous rights activist Charlie Perkins – serves as potent reminder that tensions of the past reverberate in the present and that reconciliation is ongoing: “We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives within us”.

In summary: An impressive, sombre entry into Australia’s small and eclectic canon of musicals.

Next week: We follow the yellow brick (or dusty asphalt) road to Chris Löfvén’s Oz (1976), another musical of a very different vintage.

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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