Charlie's Country

Charlie's Country ★★★★

Serves as a requiem of sorts for an old country and culture which will never return as it once was, a familiar trope in international 20th Century art. A haunted protagonist, trapped between two worlds, navigates the spiritual costs of an Aboriginal-Australian future. Despite this difficult material, de Heer's undercurrent of dark humour is still richly intact, and it does nurture a more uplifting, constructive conclusion, through finding a way to keep Charlie's Country alive.

Charlie's Country takes a rather balanced and truthful look at the plight of the remote, somewhat bicultural indigenous Australian, and the slow, dark realisation that they can't really return to the old way, but also are hopelessly trapped in the horrific state occupied by remote Indigenous Australians in wider Australian society going forward (at least during their lifetime anyway). It's a spiritually-defeating fringe dweller existence betwixt a rock and a hard place, a frustratingly enduring culture clash devoid of sufficient sensitivity between tradition and modernity. The constraining talons of white society, and their differing laws, crawl into almost every nook and cranny of remote Indigenous communities. The indigenous are placed at the soul-sapping mercy of welfare.

Whilst Charlie has managed to find a way to resiliently laugh off a lot of these observed and felt contradictions, a series of frustrating encounters polarise him away from the straight path, and towards pursuing a return to an old way of life. However, the new world also inescapably flows through his veins, and the old way of life is no country for old men. He realises that there is no going back, at least for him. At this point, Charlie is spiritually lost. Following some further anguish, Charlie is lured into the spiral of drink, and following a broken windshield scene which chillingly brought back memories of the explosion of frustration in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, he has a stay in prison, before winding up back where he started, and finding a different way to keep the old way alive. He heroically impersonalises himself by passing on a suffocating culture to a new generation.

Whilst at first glance some of the 'white' characters here might seem a little one-note and obnoxious, most of these characters are actually realistically flawed with multiple layers, with their own real-world counterpart truths. In contrast to something like the repulsively propagandist Utopia, this was more refreshingly balanced. The Darwin doctor, for instance, represents the crucial need for cultural sensitivity in the health system (the 'foreign' comment is a gasping moment). For instance, if an uneducated Indigenous man has diabetes or lung cancer, and is told to cut the sugar or cigarettes from his diet, without getting across the causal connection there is less chance of the vital information being effectively communicated and absorbed. The wet-around-the-ears police officers also show the stresses of coming from a big city into a troubling undernourished community. We also glimpse relatively adapted Aboriginal elders, along with those hopelessly gripped by (and therefore banned from) the toxic drink. The nature of the European invasion and later systemic racism haunts over the various people caught within this scenario, including the trapped indigenous people, and the various law and health professionals in interaction with these communities. In various ways, the spectre of alcohol in particular is recurringly utilised here as a manifestation of racial disadvantage. It's a reminder that indigenous affairs still has a pragmatically vital place in the forefront of Australian policy.

The direction here was perfect, as always from de Heer. The prison sequence was particularly striking, with the clean shaven scene being a highlight. The film rises to a new level as a result of this routine and practically wordless prison sequence.

David Gulpilil, as usual, is also fantastic here in what might just be a career-topping performance. The semi-autobiographical nature of his performance is truly haunting, and his ability to juggle good-natured humour and irony with pathos is extraordinary. To me, this performance was somewhat reminiscent of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Gulpilil still retains that fantastic physical shape and demeanour he held way back in Walkabout all those 43 years ago.

My cinema experience was somewhat curtailed by the cinema goer next to me. She noisily ate through a box of popcorn for the first 30 minutes, as if she had not eaten for a year, not stopping to take a breath. She also possessed an irritatingly loud look-at-me laughter (you know the type), gargled in ugly fashion by the half chewed popcorn still lodged in her oesophagus. She also took her jacket off during the film, before later putting it back on as a blanket. You know, it's great to see someone really getting into a film like Charlie's Country, but in terms of cinema etiquette, I found her incredibly distracting. Obnoxious patron aside, I am still really happy I saw this in cinemas.

This film confirms that Rolf de Heer might just be the greatest auteur in the history of Australian Film. Whilst there have been other sensational directors to emerge from Australia, de Heer has maintained a distinctly local focus, and his body of work in that regard is arguably unparalleled. Complete with several of his regular cast and that ever-present vein of dark humour, de Heer continues to unearth the darker societal stories of this continent behind the attempts at neighbourly decorum. Rolf (not the other Rolf) and David are both among Australia's greatest living treasures in the medium of film. Very close to 4.5 stars, and very close to topping their greatest collaboration to date; The Tracker.

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