Directed by: Hugh Keays-Byrne, Paul Elliott
Starring: Helen Jones, Lorna Lesley, Robyn Nevin, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Stephen Leeder, Harold Hopkins, Jack Thompson
First viewing, via DVD
Resistance is a film that’s been on my “to watch” list a long time. A remote-set dystopian action-thriller co-directed by character actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, best known as the antagonist in those other famous remote-set dystopian action-thrillers Mad Max and Mad Max: Fury Road, is an enticing proposition. However, the film was not afforded a conventional theatrical release in Australia, and is not widely available on physical or streaming media. I managed to secure a DVD copy via Amazon, but on receiving and finally playing the disc was disappointed to find the soundtrack was in French and there were no English subtitles. I decided to forge ahead and watch the film anyway, on the chance I mightn’t ever see it in another form, though I hope that Ozflix can one day add it to their collection with its original soundtrack. That wasn’t my only quandary though; I also had to decide whether to review a film which, based on the language barrier, clearly had me at a disadvantage. Again, I decided to forge ahead and do this because, as this review attests, even under imperfect viewing standards the film’s merits are evident.
The large, bold red title text above establishes the film’s title and theme in one Oliver Stone-esque swoop. Resistance is set in a near future where, according to the opening crawl – thankfully in English – “A nation is bankrupt and losing control. The government, under pressure, deploys its troops to all corners of the land. Martial law looms”. The film chronicles the deployment of troops to the remote Ithaca Plains Township and the imposition of law over the community. Female workers are protesting their treatment by the local big agricultural business, and the military, in the political-corporate interest, intervenes to curb these protests. This intervention is violent, lives are lost, and the survivors band together to fight back against their oppressors. If I’m describing all this in rather broad strokes, once again please bear in mind I was working without dialogue in audio or text form, so I’m no doubt missing some nuances and intricacies.
As noted above, part of my interest in seeing the film was due to Hugh Keays-Byrne’s presence as co-director, alongside Paul Elliott. One of Australia’s finest stalwart character actors, contemporary audiences got a healthy dose of Keays-Byrne in 2015 when he played the year’s most instantly iconic antagonist, Immortan Joe, in the year’s most instantly iconic film, Mad Max: Fury Road, more than 35 years after essaying his AFI-nominated villain role in Miller’s original Mad Max. While best known for those roles, my favourite Keays-Byrne performances can be found in 1974’s Stone, in which he played a violent drugged-up biker, and 1975’s The Man from Hong Kong, in which he played an exasperated police detective. Only two years before, Keays-Byrne had relocated from Britain to Australia, after touring the country as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s experimental production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there’s a wonderful incongruity to this experimental English actor essaying these broad Australian parts and investing them with theatrical gravitas: flamboyant Shakespearean bogans is the best phrase I can use to describe those characters and performances, and they’re absolutely delightful.
While watching Australian actors (or English-Australian ones) in Australian settings dubbed over and speaking exaggeratedly in French was a marked impediment, the visual language and storytelling of Resistance are strong enough that I could probably have watched the film in silence, sans both music and soundtrack, and gotten the same narrative gist. Keays-Byrne and Elliot (who’s credited on the DVD but strangely not on IMDB) show a real knack for composition and staging set pieces, and the visuals are striking and, where needed, vivid, raw, and ugly. The co-directors are aided by some legit talent behind the scenes, including editor Stewart Young (who worked on last week’s film Ghosts of the Civil Dead and John Hillcoat’s subsequent film To Have and To Hold) and cinematographer Sally Bongers (who shot Jane Campion’s Sweetie). There’s some legit talent onscreen too, with Keays-Byrne himself playing a supporting role as well as recognisable faces like Robyn Nevin, Jack Thompson, Harold Hopkins, Vincent Gil (another Ghosts of the Civil Dead and Mad Max alum), and Donal (brother of Mel) Gibson appearing alongside new, rising, and veteran talents. This concentration of talent and combined credentials, not to mention the film’s scale – it cost around $6.3 million and looks like it was shot largely on location – and technical prowess – it received AFI Award nominations for Best Editing and Best Production Design – only makes it more mind-boggling and suspect that this was never afforded proper release. I’ve encountered some juicy conjecture about this online, but no official take from its creators.
Resistance is one of a number of Australian films depicting dystopian futures. Mad Max and its sequels are the jewels in this genre’s crown, but there’s also Turkey Shoot (in which the elite imprison subversives and hunt them for sport), Dead End Drive-In (in which juvenile delinquents are rounded up and imprisoned in drive-in cinemas), The Rover (which is somewhat vague about the specifics of its dystopian future, but paints a bleak and desolate portrait nonetheless), two adaptations of Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (courtesy of message magnate Stanley Kramer and music video maestro Russell Mulcahy), and such Australian-made, internationally co-funded flicks as The Salute of the Jugger (co-starring Keays-Byrne), The Time Guardian (reviewed here), and Fortress. Of the films I’ve seen (all bar The Salute of the Jugger and Mulcahy’s television On the Beach), Resistance is the most grounded, least fantastical of this assortment, and the only film to create an immersive, lived-in community and then chronicle, over the course of the narrative, the percolating discontent, the community’s dismantling by force, and the consequent uprising. Keays-Byrne previously played a union leader in Richard Lowenstein’s Strikebound and the titular character, the leader of an underground Fascist movement, in Tim Burtsall’s Kangaroo, bespeaking an interest in political activism and its various incarnations and uses, both good and ill. Resistance has similar meat on its mind, and watching the film in late January – with fresh memories of the recent marches across America against U.S. President Trump and, closer to home, anti-Australia Day protests in Sydney that resulted in fisticuffs – the film’s pro-activist, pro-resistance message resonated with current events.
In summary: While lack of English subtitles and my inability to speak French impeded my viewing experience, Resistance still makes itself and its message heard. Muscular and visually impressive, the film amplifies and dramatizes contemporary and, regrettably, continuing injustices and inequities.
Next week: Following a double dose of downers, we embark on a month of comedies, starting with a triple review of romantic comedies Dating the Enemy, Danny Deckchair, and I Love You Too.