Director: Henri Safran
Starring: John Ewart, John Howard, Nicole Kidman, Manalpuy, Mark Spain, James Wingrove, Peter Sumner, Vineta O’Malley
Bush Christmas is not, as its title implies, a film about how George H.W. and George W. spend their Christmas vacation. Rather, it’s another entry in Australia’s modest canon of cinematic yuletide yarns. Last year, David Swann’s Christmas comedy Crackers got the Down Under Flix seasonal treatment (read our review here), and this year Henri Safran’s family film goes under the spotlight.
The Thompson family – father Ben (Peter Sumner), mother Kate (Vineta O’Malley), and children John (Mark Spain) and Helen (Nicole Kidman in her feature film debut) – are on the brink of losing their farm to the bank, but stand a chance of holding onto their property if their thoroughbred wins in the local races. However, a few days before Christmas their horses are stolen by crooks Bill (John Ewart) and Sly (John Howard). Helen and John, along with their cousin Michael (James Wingrove) and Aboriginal farmhand Manalpuy (Manalpuy), embark on an outback journey in hot pursuit of the horse thieves.
This 1983 film is the second onscreen iteration of this story: the first Bush Christmas, directed by Ralph Smart and starring Chips Rafferty, was released in 1947. On that timeline of 36 years between films, I’d say we’re due for a third iteration around 2019. While that sounds like a dig at the recent wave of remakes of catalogue Australian titles (e.g. Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Blue Fin, and director Safran’s own Storm Boy), I actually think Bush Christmas is precisely the sort of film that would benefit from a remake. It’s a fun little tale with a certain timeless quality that makes it ripe for revisiting, and while it’s a solid film, the 1983 version has some imperfections that could be ironed out in another iteration.
It’s probably unfair to compare Bush Christmas with Storm Boy, but both films share the same director, and Safran’s Christmas concoction suffers in comparison to his very fine Colin Thiele adaptation. Where Storm Boy brought some New Wave aesthetic and thematic texture to its family friendly story, Bush Christmas is more of a generic kids adventure film, replete with cheap slapstick courtesy of Bill and Sly’s odd coupling (reminiscent of Sherriff and Junior from Smokey and the Bandit). There’s also a frustratingly blasé attitude – sadly symptomatic of many films targeting younger audiences – towards rudimentary logic. For example, at one point in the film Kate, a woman who’s seemingly lived and toiled in the outback her entire life, goes looking for her children in the scorching heat without water or provisions. Meanwhile, the Thompsons’ horses are peculiarly compliant towards the strangers and imbeciles that steal them in the dead of night and attempt to ride them cross-country.
Even so, there’s much to like about Bush Christmas. The story is engaging, outback Queensland is nicely shot, the cast both young and old acquit themselves well, and following Safran’s exemplary work with David Gulpilil on Storm Boy, the director, writer Ted Roberts, and one-time actor Manalpuy craft another positive, affirmative portrait of an Aboriginal character onscreen (albeit one in subservience to a porcelain white family). I’m not sure how it plays to today’s younger audiences, but for those of a certain vintage Bush Christmas is pleasant enough seasonal viewing.
Merry Christmas, thanks for reading, and see you in 2018…