In a recent interview with The Age, director Kriv Stenders characterises his ability to continue working as a marker of success. He’s not wrong. Sift through the back catalogue of films covered on Down Under Flix and you’ll find an abundance of directors who debuted and bowed out with a single film (e.g. Dating the Enemy’s Megan Simpson Huberman, Beyond Innocence’s Scott Murray, Bondi Tsunami’s Rachael Lucas) or who struggled to generate output following earlier successes. Stenders remains productive and prolific, with a new film, Australia Day, on this year’s festival circuit and a television remake of Wake in Fright in the works. He’s also found a measure of mainstream success with his Red Dog films. The first, 2011’s Red Dog, is a modern family classic, a spunky, funny tearjerker and one of the best local films of the 21st century. Its follow-up, 2016’s Red Dog: True Blue, got a lukewarm reception but it’s a nice old school Australian bildungsroman with a light touch and a canine co-star in the Storm Boy/Blue Fin tradition. The films that launched Stenders’ career, however, are very different animals.
Stars: Samuel Johnson, Colin Friels, Jessica Napier, Sacha Horler, Kestie Morassi
First viewing, via DVD
Stenders’ feature debut, 2005’s The Illustrated Family Doctor, stars Samuel Johnson as Gary Kelp, an employee at a book publisher that produces abridged versions of existing titles. After his father’s death, Gary struggles with his current workload, which is creating an abridged version of the film’s titular medical tome. As he edits this mammoth text, the ailments he reads about begin to materialise and affect his mental and physical health, as well as his work and personal relationships.
The Illustrated Family Doctor is emblematic of a very particular type of obtuse, urban-set Australian art film. These are identifiable by several signifiers: they’re frugal productions with thought-provoking but slightly undercooked ingredients, are anchored by a not entirely sympathetic navel-gazing lead, unfold on a dramatic plateau, and never quite add up to the sum of their parts. This is not to say they’re without merits, but they’re most definitely acquired tastes. In The Illustrated Family Doctor, characters behave like alien beings and their motivations are often perplexing and head-scratching, though in the film’s defence this could all be interpreted through the subjectivity of a deeply unwell character. Despite these curveballs, the cast does fine: Johnson is a solid lead, Friels continues being an MVP of Australian film (see The Coolangatta Gold and Mr Reliable), and Morassi and others do nice supporting work. In its clinical, chilly style and fascination with the disintegration of the human body, The Illustrated Family Doctor is tonally the closest I’ve seen to a David Cronenberg vibe in an Australian film, albeit not harnessed to a thriller narrative. Overall, it’s a hard film to warm to, but it’s not really in the business of making friends.
Also not in the business of making friends…
Stars: Aden Young, Toby Wallace, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Pip Miller, Neil Pigot
First viewing, via DVD
Stenders’ 2009 film Lucky Country belongs in a triple bill with Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Bobcat Goldthwaite’s God Bless America, two other films with deeply ironic titles ruminating on national woes. Like The Illustrated Family Doctor, the film’s title riffs on a book title, in this case Donald Horne’s 1964 non-fiction book The Lucky Country, an amiably damning work in which Horne famously dubbed Australia “a lucky country run mainly by second rate people”. Stenders’ film, set in 1902 and pitting a mentally deteriorating man of faith (Aden Young) and his children (Toby Wallace, Hanna Mangan Lawrence) against three conniving ex-soldiers on their outback property, is scarce on luck and populated with fourth-rate people, wringing additional irony from its title choice.
There’s a touch of the chameleon to Stenders’ work. If I wasn’t aware that The Illustrated Family Doctor and Lucky Country shared the same director, I would not have intuited it. The latter film is raw and muscular and naturalistic, a very different beast to the more obtuse and calculated former film. And yet both share a certain detachment and lack of warmth for their protagonists; by the same token, if I hadn’t known I would never have intuited that these films and the Red Dog films were cut from the same authorial cloth. If Red Dog: True Blue is, as intimated earlier, an affectionate Australian bildungsroman, Lucky Country is its dark counterpart, depicting a young boy’s initiation into a murky world where greed is pervasive and predators inhabit all walks of life, from the military to free enterprise.
Of the two films discussed here, Lucky Country is the better effort and more skilfully wrangles its gritty survival thriller tone. Largely a chamber piece, it elicits good work from a tight ensemble, with particularly strong work from the young Toby Wallace performing a tragic rite of passage and Aden Young, an old hand at suffering onscreen for Australia (see Metal Skin and Black Robe), flexing those misery muscles. As a portrait of inhospitable country, it’s a nice companion piece to Henry Lawson’s canonical short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’, published 1892, ten years before the events depicted in Lucky Country. Yet where Lawson milks danger from Australia’s fauna, in Stenders’ film the danger resides with Australia’s newly Federated human populace.
Next time: Down Under Flix celebrates the 30th anniversary of three 1987 releases: Dot Goes to Hollywood, High Tide, and Dogs in Space.