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‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: a safe take on the rogue’s origin story
Ron Howard’s entertaining prequel is missing the looseness Han deserves

Tales of a troubled production history used to sink movies before they even had a commercial chance; now, they’re just another part of the marketing toolkit, designed to give a product the illusion of unpredictability, conferring an underdog status on a multimillion-dollar micromanaged enterprise as if to lower expectations and then bask in the triumph of surpassing them. This week’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, an origin yarn about the iconic space pirate made famous by Harrison Ford, arrives with just such a chequered past. Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed over creative differences and replaced with Ron Howard, while an acting coach was brought in to jazz up star Alden Ehrenreich’s supposedly lacklustre performance. And yet, what do you know, you can hardly tell in the finished work. The film is cohesive, zippy and confident to a fault, an interlocking piece of an ever-expanding – or should that be contracting – universe where most of the spontaneity has been relegated to the bad press. Missing is the loose, funky feel synonymous with its brash smuggler pilot – or, dare one suggest, the movie that Lord and Miller were trying to make.

When we last saw Han Solo, a grizzled and grouchy Ford in 2015’s The Force Awakens, he was being unceremoniously skewered by his ingrate son and dispatched to the depths of some bottomless space abyss, finally taking that 40-year career millstone down with him. But nothing, not even Ford’s erstwhile charisma, stays dead in the world of franchise extension, so here’s the backstory that no one in particular needed. Ehrenreich is charged with resurrecting the charm and swagger of his predecessor – a doomed scenario for the talented young actor, whose own qualities are suffocated by the mimesis. This is the second standalone story after 2016’s Rogue One and the first Star Wars since last year’s divisive, rebellious The Last Jedi; yet where the latter rightly exhorted the franchise to destroy the past, much to the disconcert of some regressive “fans”, Solo is aggressively on brand, snugly adhering to the corporate plan in the golden age of content.

Things begin pulpy and promising, with Ehrenreich’s gearhead loner boosting a boxy landspeeder and racing through a cluttered seaport on his home world of Corellia, pursued by the goons of local crime boss Lady Proxima, a silvery alien crustacean presiding over an underground lair. Solo and his girlfriend Qi’ra – played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, proving the smuggler had a taste for haughty accents as long as he did space vests – are desperately trying to flee their slum city. But when Qi’ra is captured, Solo escapes by enlisting in the Imperial Army, leading to an off-world battle in mud-soaked trenches, and a chance meeting with a gang of scammers led by the duplicitous Beckett (Woody Harrelson). It’s also here that Solo rescues – in an inevitably touching moment, straight out of Star Wars lore – the Wookiee Chewbacca, who’d been enslaved in a grimy Imperial prison. (The howling Chewie remains one of the true constants that tie these movies together, like the walking carpet that he is.)

And so things get duly checked off in the manner of prequels: we see Solo meet dashing raconteur Lando Calrissian (Atlanta’s Donald Glover) and acquire the space freighter the Millennium Falcon in their infamous card game of Sabacc; we watch as Chewbacca literally rips someone’s arms out of their sockets, and we chuckle at his burgeoning frustration with the Falcon’s hologram chess game. (The cleverest origin wink offers a wry explanation at Lando’s mispronunciation of “Han” in the original trilogy.) It’s all appealingly couched in a scuzzy, fringes-of-the-galaxy vibe, shot atmospherically by Bradford Young and sprinkled with plenty of 1970s flavour: afros, gold-trimmed sets, chintzy robes and jumpsuits that could be from a knockoff like 1978’s Laserblast. Current zeitgeist prince Donald Glover, meanwhile, adds a welcome dash of personality channelling Billy Dee Williams’ cape-favouring, possibly robo-sexual Lando, who gets a great “captain’s log” comedic moment and sparks some genuine chemistry with Ehrenreich when the movie dearly needs it. Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices an activist droid seeking to emancipate her kind, and it’s a funny, welcome clatter of unrest amid the hardscrabble life under the Empire’s reign. Robots clank and inventively designed creatures squish and squabble like the Burroughsian backwater of the original’s Mos Eisley; at some point, you half expect Bea Arthur to show up serving drinks.

For all its peripheral charms, Solo also moves at a breakneck stride, with heists and doublecrosses and shootouts, scored to John Powell’s distressingly generic music, that pile on top of each other without much pause for character moments. The film’s finest sequence – Han and Chewie piloting the Millennium Falcon clear of a colossal space squid and into the legendary Kessel Run – manages to get the balance just right, firing on all pistons with fast, funny interplay that elevates both character dynamics and thrilling visual effects. Yet too much of the film gets bogged down in overarching narrative that’s predetermined by an existing text. “Stick to the plan – do not improvise,” Beckett tells Solo at one point, and it’s as though the directive came from Disney’s Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy herself. It’s easy to forget how knockabout and silly George Lucas’s very first Star Wars was by comparison, how light on its feet and seemingly invented-on-the-fly it felt – an energy that remains infectious, despite the crushing weight of the universe and cultural fandom it birthed.

Solo never feels like it’s winging it. There isn’t a moment as throwaway-great as the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han thumps the faltering circuits of the Falcon to bring them back to life, a moment – like that film’s famous “I love you” / ”I know” exchange – that was improvised on the day. (It’s also a testament to the skill of actors like Ford and Carrie Fisher, capable of transforming B-movie dialogue into pop quotables.) Ironically, Lord and Miller were ousted in large part for their tendency to improvise with the performers, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether they might have conjured that freewheeling spark of energy that’s at best been approximated here. Howard, a reliable workman who seems to be forever directing as though he’s hosting a masterclass, makes sure Solo is tonally coherent, but it needed to be more Bob Falfa, and less Richie Cunningham – the film is a square behind the wheel of a hot rod.

Still, this is the movie for fans who’ve disproportionately mythologised Solo as an avatar of cool for half a century, and the unremarkable comeuppance for every whiny dude that wore a “Han Shot First” T-shirt (you’d better believe there’s a scene for that here, too.) The character’s flippant mystique, once the stuff of legend, is now just another building block on the corporate calendar, unravelled to the public with the episodic banality of a Marvel instalment. A late-period cameo lifted straight from the expanded universe and a sequel-ready send-off suggests that these Star Wars will likewise run to infinity, but to what end? We’ve reached the brand-management phase of the Star Wars cycle, and something that began as a young filmmaker’s exuberant, junky escapism has become a lumbering, inescapable behemoth. To paraphrase Jabba the Hutt: Solo may have been a good smuggler, but now he’s just Bantha fodder.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is an award-winning film critic and editor whose work has appeared in ABC’s Final Cut, 4:3 Film and SBS Movies.

@timebombtown

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Editor’s Note June 2018

Image from ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)

Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

Image from ‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC

‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre

Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace

Image of sheep

Turning a blind eye to live exports

Just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken?


Editor’s Note June 2018

“The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive,” Janet Malcolm once wrote.

For good reason, a savvy writer is wary of being written about. Knowing what’s involved, why should she submit herself to the motives – and the savage scrutiny – of another? Their respective aims are not the same, and those of the latter may not even be honourable. (Janet Malcolm again: “Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.”)

Helen Garner well knows the complex dynamics at play between writer and subject. From experience, she knows that no one can predict what will result when they sit down together, and that it takes considerable bravery, in handing your story to another, to trade the safety of seclusion for the benefits of exposure, scrutiny, of being judged.

“If I’m not in a particularly confident or extroverted mood, it starts to feel as if I’m hacking off pieces of myself to please or entertain or interest the interviewer,” Helen Garner tells Erik Jensen in the June issue of The Monthly. Despite the risks, she did agree to bare her soul. And the rewards are obvious – to readers, at least.

Jensen’s profile, based on several long interviews, is worthy of his subject, and as unflinching, personal and gratifying as Garner’s own work.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.

@nickfeik

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Image from ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: a safe take on the rogue’s origin story

Ron Howard’s entertaining prequel is missing the looseness Han deserves

Image from ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)

Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

Image from ‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC

‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre

Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace

Image of sheep

Turning a blind eye to live exports

Just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken?


Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)
Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

Long Day’s Journey into Night

After an unusually rocky start, this year’s Cannes Film Festival actually proved to be one of the better editions in recent memory – its last six days back-loaded with such terrific movies, you wondered why they didn’t spread the love a little more evenly across the program. (A German buyer I know suggested that the strategy was deliberate: “They know they have a limited amount of really good films – not enough for the whole 10 days – so they put the best ones at the end. That way, people leave the festival on a high, having forgotten the early failures.”)

Thus, South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) made a triumphant return to Competition with his first feature since 2010’s magnificent Poetry. Ostensibly adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning was actually much closer to vintage Patricia Highsmith: a meticulous, chilling study of class resentment and sociopathy, with Yoo Ah-in playing Lee Jong-soo, a farm-dwelling Tom Ripley with literary aspirations, and The Walking Dead’s Stephen Yuen as “Ben”, the Gangnam-dwelling playboy who both fascinates and disgusts him. This unlikely pair are bought together by pretty, troubled Shin Hae-mi (screen debutante Jong-seo Jeon), who seems to be Jong-soo’s girlfriend, until she returns from a holiday in Kenya with Ben in tow (“We were the only Koreans there!”) and with a sudden, newfound yearning for oblivion; she wants, she says, to disappear utterly from the Earth, “like smoke”.

And then, one day, she does just that. So, did Ben kill her? Lee teases the possibility but ultimately withholds judgment, in favour of a wry, almost existential ambiguity, a tone neatly encapsulated in the mystery of Hae-mi’s cat – an animal that may or may not exist. His script explores its themes skilfully: Hae-mi’s explanation of her mime studies (you don’t have to pretend that you’re holding an object, she explains, you just have to forget that you’re not) becomes the presiding metaphor of the entire film. And Lee’s measured visual style amplifies the tension, the sense that matters could at any moment lurch into violence and chaos. After almost two-and-a-half hours, the film’s climactic scene felt at once inevitable and entirely right. A slow-burner – if you’ll pardon the expression – it’s also one of the best films of the year, by one of contemporary cinema’s masters.

With Dogman, Italy’s Mateo Garrone offered a different but equally potent kind of crime drama. A pooch-groomer in the slums outside Naples, diminutive Marcello deals a little coke on the side – partly to shore up his popularity in his neighbourhood, but mostly to finance the diving holidays on which he takes his beloved daughter Sofia. One of his best customers is local tough Simoncino, a shaven-headed pile of muscle whose appetite for blow and hair-trigger temper make Jake LaMotta look like a model of self-restraint. With no one prepared to stand up to him, Simoncino has long since stopped paying for his drugs, and Marcello knows he should say something. But he’s also quietly in awe of his loose-cannon amico. A little man, Marcello both craves and fears Simoncino’s attentions – aware all the while that he’ll never earn his respect. And so these co-dependent mutts, the pit bull and the lapdog, descend into a hell of their own making.

Garrone made his name with the mafia drama Gomorrah (2008), but this one is even better, I think: more concise and less diffuse, set among provincial bottom-feeders and wannabes – low-rent, perpetually broke thugs in filthy tracksuits, for whom even an entry-level career in the real mob represents some distant, impossible dream. The setting, a dismal backwater of concrete and weeds (it was filmed in the slums of Castel Volturno), is grim in the style of architect Ernő Goldfinger, and cinematographer Nicolai Brüel frames it magnificently, in long shots of parched, brutalist grandeur. The three leads, meanwhile – Marcello Fonte as the titular “dogman”, Edoardo Pesce as Simoncino, and nine-year-old newcomer Alida Baldari Calabria as Sofia – are nothing short of extraordinary. (To no one’s surprise, Fonte walked away with the prize for Best Actor.)

The Un Certain Regard section, meanwhile, included my favourite film of the festival – and probably of the year: Chinese auteur Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. (For the record, it has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, nor with the Roberto Bolaño novel – Last Evenings on Earth – whose name it stole for its Chinese title. I found it closer to Bolaño’s writing, though, to stories like “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” and “The Return”, than to Patrick Modiano’s, which Bi cited in his press notes as an influence.)

To call it (as someone I overheard did) “the best film Wong Kar-wai never made” is to undersell both its achievement and its influences. The lush, shadowy visuals recall Wong’s, sure – but there’s some Tarkovsky in there too, the ruined, drowned-world aesthetics of Stalker, as well as the recursive nightmares of David Lynch. And there’s also a healthy dose of Alain Resnais, its fractured time-scheme recalling both Muriel and Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Set in the director’s hometown, the southern city of Kaili, it opens with Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) sitting in a seedy hotel room remembering his romance 10 years earlier with Wan Qiwen, the girlfriend of a notorious gangster. Did the boyfriend murder her, having discovered their affair? Or (it’s hinted) could Luo perhaps have killed her himself? For some reason, he now can’t recall. Haunted, he journeys back to Kaili – but instead finds himself stuck in a ruined village in the hills outside the town, a labyrinth of alleyways and staircases that he wanders in vain, encountering people who seem vaguely familiar, some of whom vaguely seem to know him, before finally entering a cinema. Once inside, he dons a pair of 3D glasses – and so do we, having been given them at the door and told to wait for the appropriate moment to put them on.

What follows is a single, 50-minute Steadicam take of astounding complexity and daring, involving drones, zip-lines, a dozen different locations, about a hundred extras, a motorcycle ride, miscellaneous animals, a little flying, two musical numbers, a revolving set, and, just as an extra fuck you to low expectations, an almost defiantly audacious game of pool, in which one character’s failure to sink a shot will doom the entire sequence … All in 3D, with no digital trickery to hide the joins, and all looking like the most ravishingly beautiful movie you’ve ever seen. It’s incredible, there’s no other word for it. It defies belief.

“Fragmented memories”, muses Luo in the film’s opening seconds. “Are they real or not?” This question reverberates through the entirety of what follows, making us uncertain whether we’re watching something that’s past or present, real or imagined. Images of stopped clocks and watches abound, as Bi lays sophisticated traps involving time and structure. Elusive and oneiric, I also found it incredibly moving: the story of a man trying in vain to hold onto something precious to him, even as its memory slips like sand between his fingers. The following day I accompanied a friend to watch it again, and found it even richer on a second viewing, though scarcely more comprehensible. But it’s a dream I would gladly have again and again, one from which I have no desire to wake.

Twenty-two minutes into Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm I checked my watch, wanting to note the precise moment at which it occurred to me that it would win the Palme d’Or. Directed by a woman – reportedly important to the Cate Blanchett-chaired jury in this most egalitarian of years – and about impoverished children, asylum-seekers and slum-dwellers, with a cast comprising African and Syrian refugees, it only had to be competent to claim the prize. Instead, to my surprise, it was rather good, if perhaps a little too long and strident – proceeding from a frankly unbelievable premise (a child suing his parents in a Beirut court for bringing him into the world) into a portrait of a shattered region, and its devastating effect upon the weakest of its inhabitants.

None of the factors listed above, incidentally, are bad things; I remark on them only because they seemed to hit several desirable marks. All through the festival, word was that the jury wanted to send a political message. Which meant that there was a far greater likelihood that a female director would take the top prize, for only the second time in the festival’s history – a state of affairs not so much depressing as disgraceful. But there were only three women in Competition this year, and the Eva Husson film (Girls of the Sun) was exploitative rubbish, a study of female Kurdish freedom-fighters that cheapened everything it touched. Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazarro Felice, by contrast, began intriguingly, as a kind of pastoral folktale, but soon descended into whimsical irrelevance. (I realise, three features into her career, that Rohrwacher is like an Italian Shirley Barrett: someone with whose films I just do not get along.)

To give the Palme to one of these two would have diminished both the recipient and the message being sent; it smacked of condescension. What was needed was something whose virtues were apparent, if not quite to every taste. Something well crafted and relevant, and which (ideally) packed an emotional punch. Labaki’s film looked a lot like it.

Yet when the awards were announced, on Saturday, the film earned only a Jury Prize – a decision greeted with boos in the press room. The Grand Prix du Jury, the festival’s second prize, went to Spike Lee for the ham-fisted, overly didactic BlacKkKlansman, a supposedly “provocative” dissection of US race relations that proved about as nuanced as a Li’l Abner cartoon – notwithstanding an excellent performance from Adam Driver. Note to Spike Lee: most of the time, racists don’t say overtly racist shit. They don’t have to: racism operates via coded language and a set of assumptions. (For proof, look at your current US attorney-general – or your president.) A truly insightful film would examine that: how the discourse has been deformed by a privilege that enshrines white culture as a fixed and absolute signifier, instead of settling, as here, on the softest of targets: a bunch of redneck caricatures who drop “nigger” into every second sentence. That’s too easy.

In the end, the Palme d’Or wound up going to Hirokazu Kore-eda, for the touching, excellent drama Shoplifters – a harsh but compassionate study of an impoverished family living on the margins of society and the law. Beautifully observed, and faultlessly acted (Kore-eda is one of cinema’s great directors of children), it felt like a deserving winner, and attested to Blanchett’s stated aim of considering the works purely on their artistic merits, divorced from questions of gender or nationality – a statement few of us had taken seriously, but which proved to be exactly the case.

Finally, congratulations must go to Australian director Charles Williams, whose film All These Creatures won the Short Film Palme d’Or – a remarkable, commendable achievement.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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Image from ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: a safe take on the rogue’s origin story

Ron Howard’s entertaining prequel is missing the looseness Han deserves

Editor’s Note June 2018

Image from ‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC

‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre

Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace

Image of sheep

Turning a blind eye to live exports

Just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken?


‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre
Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace

Blackie Blackie Brown at the Sydney Theatre Company. Picture by Daniel Boud

Caped crusaders of days gone by reassuringly scooped up fair damsels trussed on rail tracks or fellow gents standing upon window ledges. But what if your 21st-century superhero is an Indigenous woman, whose female ancestral spirit has empowered her to carry out a cycle of murderous payback for the slaughter committed by colonial men?

Such satire aimed at a nation’s priapic foundations might frighten drooping generals of the culture wars, who cling to a denial of history. In Nakkiah Lui’s new play, Blackie Blackie Brown, which has premiered at Sydney Theatre Company prior to a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, mild-mannered Dr Jacqueline Black (Megan Wilding) is an Aboriginal archaeologist working on a mass grave dig somewhere in the Australian bush. Her Livingstonesque pith-helmeted supervisor, played by Ash Flanders, zips about ridiculously in khaki shorts on a Segway, calling her “Blackie”.

When challenged, the knock-kneed fellow excuses the nickname as an affectionate play on his colleague’s surname, then compounds his insult by questioning whether Aboriginal people can even have a professional occupation such as archaeologist. (This is among several racial epithets that called to mind a shining silver breast plate currently on show at the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Colony: Australia 1770–1861/Frontier Wars. The plate was awarded by this nation’s new European overlords to an Indigenous man, Galmarra, for his skill and bravery on a mid-19th century exploratory journey north of the continent, but instead of writing Galmarra on the plate, his name was patronisingly engraved as Jackey Jackey.)

Cultural genocide by assimilation that refuses to dignify First Australians’ self-identity is one thing, but historian Henry Reynolds also tells us in his 2013 book Forgotten War that “perhaps well beyond” 30,000 Indigenous people were killed in the frontier war through the 19th century, compared to roughly 2500 settlers. This is our shared history at the heart of Blackie Blackie Brown when, having pulled a skull from the ground that conjures her great-great-great grandmother (Elaine Crombie) projected onto a cleverly constructed white-panelled stage set, our archaeologist heroine receives an assignment to kill before the next full moon the 400 descendants of men who slaughtered her forebears.

Reclaiming a slur, Jacqueline Black becomes superhero Blackie Blackie Brown, a deadly tidda with blue hair, pink jacket, red pants and an Indigenous flag where Superman would place his S. She sets about an exhaustive comic book montage of shooting, stabbing, hanging, disconnecting life support and general whack-a-mole carnage.

All of Blackie’s live stage victims – besides those seen in animation woven into the production – are played with quick-change comic alacrity by Flanders. My favourite of Flanders’s characters is one of Blackie’s fangirls, who, despite failing health and declaring herself an Aboriginal “ally”, prostrates herself on the kitchen linoleum, waiting for Blackie’s golden boomerang to come down on her neck as penance for her ancestors’ crimes.

I laughed as Blackie made her way in full Ku Klux Klan disguise to infiltrate a Hitler-worshipping, Australian alt-right clubhouse. I stopped laughing when Flanders, playing one of the club’s members, ran through a litany of violent “Abo” jokes.

You might assume that comedy as a theatrical form, precisely delivered at a bracing pace during a wild 90-minute ride without interval, somehow lets an audience off the hook over historical wrongs. It doesn’t. You laugh, but you also think, despite the direct, angry expression in the play about Indigenous slaughter being kept to a couple of short bursts.

News Corp ran a story online in early May about Blackie Blackie Brown, a piece of journalism that was depressingly literal and part of a desperately cynical volley in the culture wars. The journalist had not interviewed the playwright before publishing the piece, but based his story on the play’s synopsis, emphasising the story’s “mission to murder white descendants”. The article seemed to take issue with grants the play received from Australia Council and Create NSW, although the fact it took 12 paragraphs before listing these grants indicated an apparent lack of nerve by the publisher to make a clear argument about government funding of the production.

Perhaps the journalist might catch the parodic air if he bothers now to see the play. Blackie Blackie Brown herself doesn’t hate white people; she does admit to hating businessmen cyclists, wearing sponsor-covered Lycra that clings unflatteringly to their appendages, a joke that is a foretaste for Blackie’s onstage battle with a pair of old, veiny, pale testicles. The satire is hiding in plain sight, just like the giant, wind-filled appendages to which gravity has clearly not been kind.

Of course the story has Blackie grapple with the stupidity of perpetuating violence, but I’ll leave it the reader to see the play to grasp how this battle is satisfyingly resolved. As a playwright, Nakkiah Lui goes from strength to strength, her 2017 comedy of manners about middle-class Indigenous people embracing capitalism, Black is the New White, already enjoying a revival. Hers is an important voice, both as a female and Indigenous playwright, and she has surrounded herself with very talented players.

Director Declan Greene brings the anarchic, biting sensibility to the production previously seen on these stages with his Sisters Grimm theatre partner Flanders. Megan Wilding is a powerhouse as Blackie. Both Wilding and Flanders possess a dual dexterous physical comedy and electric, intelligent wit. The icing on the cake is the lighting and sound design and animation. This is a great team collaboration. Strap in, you’re in for a bumpy but brilliant ride.

Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death is at the Sydney Theatre Company until June 30, and will be at Melbourne’s Malthouse Threatre July 5–29.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

@dowsteve

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Image from ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: a safe take on the rogue’s origin story

Ron Howard’s entertaining prequel is missing the looseness Han deserves

Editor’s Note June 2018

Image from ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)

Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

Image of sheep

Turning a blind eye to live exports

Just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken?


Turning a blind eye to live exports
Just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken?

Source

The problem with exporting live sheep is that the practice is inherently unpleasant.

The animals are driven from their normal surroundings and pushed into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable confined space before being delivered to slaughter, not always humanely. Obviously they do not know what fate awaits them, but that hardly helps – they are kept in a prolonged state of stress and anxiety that exacerbates their physical and emotional wellbeing.

This may not be intended as deliberate cruelty, but it is clearly a long way from the ideals that both farmers and animal rights advocates would prefer. Short of closing the industry down altogether, there is very little that can be done to ameliorate what is, in the end, an intractable issue.

Unlike his predecessor in the portfolio, Barnaby Joyce, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud seems genuinely concerned to do what he can, and the reforms he announced last week may help. But since the economics of transporting animals halfway around the world do not allow for measures that can seriously guarantee animal welfare, it is a safe bet that corners will be cut and another atrocity will, sooner or later, be back on our TV screens.

And even if the recommendations of the review from veterinarian Michael McCarthy (who formerly worked for the live export trade) are followed to the letter, the deaths at sea are certain to continue. Easing the numbers will improve what was, frankly, lethal overcrowding, but according to the Australian Veterinarians Association, the real killer has been the heat – sheep incarcerated in the ships’ pens simply cannot survive the temperatures in the Middle Eastern summer.

Ventilation is not sufficient; only proper air-conditioned cooling would make a real difference, and that is clearly beyond the lean profit margins of the exporters. And many, if not all, would also go broke if the trade was suspended for four or five of the hottest months.

The exporting farmers would not be too happy either. So Littleproud’s impossible mission is to find a way between his National Party constituents and a very large group of voters who are far from the Green extreme, but are outraged and disgusted by what they have seen on the news.

And this means making a philosophical decision as well as a political one: just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken? We know there is a degree of suffering for the sheep even on the best-run voyages; at what point does that degree become unacceptable?

Some, like the former Health Minister Sussan Ley, say that point has already been reached: the industry cannot be maintained in a decent society, so it should be phased out. Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon is testing that proposition too, but remembers the ferocious backlash when the Gillard government temporarily suspended the live cattle trade to Indonesia.

But the crunch is coming. For many years Australians were able to turn a blind eye to even the most egregious examples of animal abuse, including many of deliberate cruelty. The fact that so many have been exposed by whistleblowers and activists, in areas ranging from greyhounds to sheep and beyond, has meant that the complacency has been shattered.

The live sheep trade is now seen to be inherently unpleasant. Just how unpleasant a trade we can tolerate will be a decision not just for the government, but ultimately for the voters.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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Image from ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: a safe take on the rogue’s origin story

Ron Howard’s entertaining prequel is missing the looseness Han deserves

Editor’s Note June 2018

Image from ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)

Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

Image from ‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC

‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre

Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace


Jay Carmichael’s debut novel, ‘Ironbark’
A poetic account of adolescent alienation and masculinity in rural Australia

From the earliest pages of Jay Carmichael’s poetic debut novel, Ironbark (Scribe; $27.99), it’s clear that something catastrophic has happened to the story’s central figure, Markus. His friend, Grayson, is dead – we don’t know how or why yet – and Markus, 18, is paralysed by loss. “Everything around him is living,” writes Carmichael “and he’s stagnant because of the knot in his belly.”

Markus lives in a remote corner of Victoria, near a small, fictional town called Narioka. He is acutely conscious of everything that’s living around him: his father and stepmother, his friends, the livestock and the native species of birds, plants and animals. The living things in this community are connected – their rhythms, moods and destinies – but, seen through the murky lens of Markus’s depression, their outlines are hazy. In the aftermath of tragedy, they move in and out of Markus’s view in an oppressive, roaring silence. When human characters speak, they talk in riddles or choke on their words. And there’s a further complication: Markus is attracted to men and hates himself for it.

Not much happens in this subtle, impressionistic novel about adolescent alienation and masculinity in rural Australia. Spanning three years in Markus’s life, it’s a novel of destructive silences. In scene after scene, Carmichael depicts chronic male reticence, self-sabotage and an atmosphere of hopeless obscurity. Here is Markus, stumbling through a charity football match, not long after the death of his friend:

The coach gives a pre-game speech: grit, determination, teamwork. An’ piss orf if yer not up fer it! The team, two by two, leave the shed and heads out onto the foggy field. The silence has a sound: hushed static, as if tuning in for signs of life. The fog means most can’t see the scratches running tracks up Markus’s arms or the callouses from the sewing needle criss-crossing his thighs. No doubt, someone caught sight of them back in the change room. None said a word.

As the narrative progresses, Carmichael adjusts the focus, bringing his story, characters and imagery into sharper, though never completely clear, view. When the details and context of Grayson’s death surface, it’s obvious that Markus will need to call on huge reserves of resilience for survival.

The reader, too, will need resilience. Carmichael has set out to paint a portrait of shame and desperation in small-town Australia, and is, at times, unbearably successful at this. Reading Ironbark sometimes feels like actually living through the wretched youth of another person in excruciating real time.

It’s a slow-burning novel – enigmatic and gloomy – but if you can tune in to Carmichael’s dreamy frequency, there are rewards. Carmichael builds up such a sense of lethargy and dread that when Markus smiles for the first time, on page 86, it feels like the heavens breaking. It’s a moment of sudden, astonishing relief – especially in contrast to an earlier scene in which Markus “turns the muscles in his face into the shape of an orange quarter”. (And what a grisly, unforgettable image of a depressed person’s smile.)

Images of pressure and release pervade the narrative, too. Markus’s community has suffered under drought, but retains the memory of a deluge, a few years prior, that filled the lake and flooded the town. With elegance and restraint, Carmichael weaves scenes of drought and flood through the drama of the intolerable, internalised pressure that is threatening to burst Markus apart. The conceit seems to wind its way right into Carmichael’s prose style. In one of the novel’s most stirring, climactic moments, Carmichael conveys Markus’s confused impulses in a kind of torrential stream of consciousness:

Men are repulsive. With their sex. With their hair. Their physicality. With their laughs and deep voices and motives and desires and kisses and hands, searching-seeking hands searching and seeking minds and fingers and tongues and lips and beards and stubble. Men.

In the final pages of Ironbark, the story gains a new energy and resonance. There’s a change in perspective and the beginning of a sense of calm, as Carmichael’s vision comes into its sharpest focus. In these pages, the finest of the novel, Carmichael paints an exquisitely tender portrait of doomed adolescent longing and love.

Sophie Quick

Sophie Quick is a Melbourne-based reviewer.

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Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

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Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part one)
An ever-so-slightly off-key event

Cold War

For most of the first week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the question on everybody’s lips was What the hell is going on? Typically sovereign and serene, the event this time seemed ever-so-slightly off-key, beset by difficulties in planning (of which, more below) and execution. There seemed fewer attendees, and notably less buzz than usual, and so pundits, as they’re wont to do, lost no time in declaring a crisis. “Cannes: 5 Signs of a Festival in Decline”, read the headline of a piece in The Hollywood Reporter, citing a dearth of stars on the red carpet and a conspicuous lack of Hollywood signage along the Croisette as conclusive proof that the fest’s best days were behind it.

I had my own sense of this when on Thursday, two days into the festival, I received an email from the Majestic Hotel, reminding me that it not only still had rooms available – astonishing in itself – but “breathtaking and enchanting” spaces to host parties, should I be so inclined. A Parisian friend confirmed, via a publicist who worked for another of the grand seaside hotels, that this year they had booked fewer than half the number of events that they’d hosted in 2017. People simply weren’t spending the money they used to. Or, worse, weren’t coming at all.

Why not? Well, for one reason, the industry is changing. Awards season – which runs, roughly speaking, from late October to February – has become more and more essential to certain films’ release strategies, and for most Hollywood studios, there’s a feeling that Cannes simply occurs too early in the calendar to properly commence a successful Oscar campaign. Whatever heat is generated at Cannes (and given the fickleness of its audiences, and the unpredictability of its juries, that’s by no means a given) will inevitably fade in a few months, and have to be rekindled later in the year. So why make the effort, and spend all that money, when the fall festivals – Telluride, Venice and Toronto – can better serve the same purpose?

Then there was the question of programming. A much-publicised feud with Netflix over in-cinema releases (the French industry demands it; Netflix, unsurprisingly, rejects it) did neither party any favours, and removed from contention a number of Netflix-funded productions, among them Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Paul Greengrass’ Norway. In addition, a surprisingly large number of Cannes regulars were passed over for selection: Mike Leigh’s historical drama Peterloo, Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers (his first English-language film) and Paolo Sorrentino’s Silvio Berlusconi biopic Loro. Zhang Yimou, Brian De Palma, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas … all tipped, and all missing. Indeed, until an 11th-hour reprieve, it seemed that Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan – a Palme d’Or winner for 2014’s Winter Sleep and a Competition perennial – would not make the cut.

There were, admittedly, some familiar names in the line-up: Jean-Luc Godard, Spike Lee, Jia Zhangke. But there was also a distinct sense of generational shift, with younger talents like Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher, Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov and France’s Eva Husson all featuring in the Official Selection. Likewise, America’s David Robert Mitchell, whose thriller It Follows was part of the Critics’ Week sidebar four years ago, now found himself promoted to Competition for his third feature, the LA-set noir Under the Silver Lake.

This search for new blood makes sense: many Cannes veterans are now in their 70s and 80s, and that generation is simply dying out; in the past few weeks alone, we’ve lost Ermanno Olmi, Miloš Forman and Vittorio Taviani. But it also led to howls of outrage from the press. Journalists who’d complained for years about the predictability of the Official Selection – likening it to an unofficial “club” of old white men, selected whether their new work merited inclusion or not – were suddenly whining that they were being denied the “big” titles they’d expected. Festival director Thierry Frémaux confessed his exasperation (“in Cannes, [journalists are] always looking for the negative”), and it was hard not to sympathise with his position. Damned when he did, he’s now damned because he didn’t.

Even so, his life might have been easier had the selection been stronger right out of the gate. Instead, the opening night film, Iranian director Asghar (A Separation) Farhadi’s Spanish-language Everybody Knows, starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, was deemed a flop, the first real misstep in the Oscar-winner’s career. And the first Competition titles to screen – Egyptian first-timer A.B. Shawky’s Yomeddine, Serebrennikov’s black and white Soviet rock drama Leto – proved badly underwhelming. Word was little better from the sidebar sections Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight. “It’s just a shitty year,” sighed one buyer, as we waited in line. She claimed to be looking forward to Venice (“I’ve already booked my hotel”), and I paused for a moment to ponder the irony. Just four years ago, Venice looked to be a festival on its last legs, abandoned by the US industry and deserted by the press. This year, it’s an essential destination once again.

But then, on Friday, came Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War – the first undeniable find of the festival, and one of the finest films of the year. A spare, devastating love story, chronicling an intermittent, long-term romance between a musician and the young female singer he discovers and nurtures (Joanna Kulig in a star-making performance), it was reportedly inspired by the contentious relationship of Pawlikowski’s own parents (the lead characters share their names: Wiktor and Zula), but transcends its source to become a parable of doomed love. Though running just 82 minutes, it somehow manages to sound the depths of a 15-year relationship, marrying an admirable economy of style (there’s not a wasted frame or superfluous beat) with astonishing depth of feeling.

As with most great love stories, the tale is largely an unhappy one: the two lovers are doomed – in part by history and its demands upon them, but mostly by dint of their own, fundamental incompatibility. As unhappy when together as when they are apart, they’re at once unable to move forward and unwilling to truly separate. The narrative – and indeed, time itself – seems to loop around them, each cut to a black screen signalling a new year and a shift in location, as the story moves from rural Poland to East Berlin, to Paris, but finally, inevitably, back to Poland once more.

The result seems of a piece with Pawlikowski’s last film, the Oscar-winning novitiate drama Ida, both in its Communist-era setting and its immaculate, rather antique aesthetic: the high-contrast black and white images, the boxy, Academy Ratio framing. But it’s also a rare treat for the ears: its soundtrack is beguiling and glorious, ranging from ethnic folk songs (reminiscent of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) to smoky Parisian jazz. And its final shot is little short of perfect, a heartbreaking coda to a short, sad song.

At lunch two days later, a young sales agent asked my opinion: should she go see the latest documentary from Wim Wenders (Pope Francis: A Man of His Word), or the new film from Gaspar (Irreversible) Noé? “Wow,” I deadpanned. “Talk about a dialectic.” And yet, in a sense, the question felt fair, even right, since of all contemporary filmmakers, Noé is the most purely infernal, the most interested in depicting images of Heaven and Hell, states of exaltation and damnation, transcendence and abjection. And considered in this sense, Climax marks the apogee of his career to date.

The story is slight – it’s 1996, and a group of Parisian dancers, of wildly different genders, races and sexual orientations, have gathered in a vast, warehouse-like space to perform. We watch their dance-off unfold in a single, continuous take that’s the most purely joyous, thrilling sequence of the year. Later they hang out to celebrate and flirt and talk shit, only to succumb to visions and madness courtesy of some LSD-spiked sangria.

The result feels like a long night at Berghain crossed with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”. It never moves quite the way you expect it to (is it wrong to say I wanted more fucking?), but it consistently astonishes, as Noé interrupts the action with almost subliminal onscreen texts (“Existence is a fleeting illusion”, “Death can be an interesting experience”); opens with the closing credits (a shrewd choice, since it primes us to anticipate the tracks it will feature, from M|A|R|R|S to Aphex Twin); and provides the opening credits about 40 minutes in, via a rapid-fire string of neon-lit emojis. A FRENCH FILM AND PROUD OF IT, reads one title card. “Fuck, yeah!” shouted someone a few rows ahead of me.

The aesthetic is one of deliberate overload, but it’s also incredible fun: no other filmmaker I can think of, with the possible exception of his countryman Leos Carax, takes such conspicuous pleasure in their medium. Noé’s technical mastery is almost matchless – there are long tracking shots here that dazzle with their fluency and elegance, and his framing is consistently revelatory – but he’s also the most playful working director. He’s boyishly delighted by making movies, and wants us to share that excitement: to be horrified, awed, terrified, amused – and never bored. At the first screening Noé stood in the street, gazing at the line of eager audience members as we filed in (all bafflingly unaware that the filmmaker they revered was standing less than 10 feet away from them); in the cinema, he hung at the back of the room, taking pictures of the packed theatre and then watching his film screen, grinning with pride and dancing a little to a Daft Punk banger. I sat a few rows away, nodding my head to the beat. Like its maker, I was having the time of my life.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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What’s in a name?
From Pig Iron Bob to Unbelieva-Bill: the trouble with nicknames in politics

Source

Treasurer Scott Morrison got very excited last week, and it wasn’t just because of his pretty ordinary budget: building a stronger economy may be a worthy slogan, but it is hardly inspiring. What was really energising him was that he (or someone he had spoken to) had invented a new nickname for Bill Shorten: Unbelieva-Bill.

No, this does not mean that the Opposition leader is a sceptic, as in Unbeliever Bill; it is supposed to mean that Shorten is Unbelievable! Boom-tish!

The best that can be said of this zinger is that it is probably only marginally clunkier than its predecessor, Electricity Bill – which never got much traction either. The trouble with nicknames is that they have to be spot-on to have an effect, and even when they do gain traction, they often end up without the pejorative connotations that the authors hoped for.

Robert Menzies was known for years as Pig Iron Bob and Ming the Merciless, but he went right on winning elections. His successors were not always so fortunate: Black Jack McEwen rejoiced in the nickname, but Jolly John Gorton suffered. Billy McMahon, christened by his own Liberal colleagues Billy Liar and Billy the Leak, never really had a chance.

Gough Whitlam revelled in The Great Gough, although it never really caught on. Malcolm Fraser liked to be called Big Mal, but seldom, if ever, was. He never really lived down the Easter Island statue image.

Bob Hawke, known variously as Little Caesar and The Silver Bodgie, took both as signs of affection rather than censure. And Keating was just Keating, or preferably KEATING! to both supporters and enemies, although some in the backroom surreptitiously called him Captain Wacky.

John Howard was denigrated as The Rodent, but was more universally called Little Johnny – not because of his height (he was, he insisted, as tall as the next man, especially if the next man was Bob Hawke) but because of his lack of vision. He was also called The Unflushable Turd by the veteran journalist Ian Fitchett – when I recorded this in one of my books there was a confection of outrage from the right. Howard’s longtime rival, Andrew Peacock, was originally named by Reg Withers The Colt from Kooyong, but was better known as The Gucci Kid; his other nicknames – The Sun Lamp Kid and The Show Pony – were hardly complimentary.

In more recent years the crop has been sparse, apart from Tony Abbott, reviled first as The Mad Monk and then as Captain Catholic from his university days. There were other epithets, all unrepeatable. Kevin Rudd never really went past Kevin 07. Julia Gillard got called lots of things, perhaps none more vicious than Alan Jones’s line of Ju-liar.

And Malcolm Turnbull has so far survived unscathed, although Donald Trump’s Mr Trumble had a brief life. Plays on Turnbull’s name – Malleable Turncoat, for one – just don’t resonate. Nor, I suspect, will Unbelieva-Bill. It is time to abandon the Kill Bill tactic for something a little more trenchant. Given that last week the Coalition’s talking points appear to have settled on the insult “shifty”, may I suggest a three-word strategy: Shaft Shifty Shorten.

It probably won’t work either; nothing else has. But it is at least catchy, if not particularly witty. A bit like Turnbull himself, really.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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‘The Alienist’: a gripping but imperfect thriller
Forensic psychology powers this lavish series, but is one of its less interesting features

You can see why Curtis Hanson wanted to make The Alienist, back when Paramount was trying to turn it into a film in the 1990s. Like L.A. Confidential, Hanson’s most acclaimed film, it’s an ensemble piece about detectives forced to operate outside of a corrupt police department in order to find a murderer. Netflix’s 10-part adaptation of Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel even duplicates a mordant scene from Hanson’s classic, in which a crooked cop is posthumously commended for valour at city hall. What sets The Alienist apart is its setting, 1896 New York, as well as its interest in children and the damage adults do to them. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” might as well be its tagline.

The book’s narrator is John Moore, a crime reporter for The New York Times and a soak who spends his nights in Bowery brothels after an abortive engagement. As played by Luke Evans in the series, Moore is an illustrator rather than a hack, and the story begins with his being summoned to a still-under-construction Williamsburg Bridge, where a boy prostitute has been murdered and gruesomely mutilated. Moore is there to draw the corpse at the behest of Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an old Harvard friend and the alienist of the title: an expert on the mentally ill, who were considered “alienated” from themselves. Kreizler is the son of German émigrés, and he’s played by Daniel Brühl with a suitably indeterminate accent. The doctor is convinced there’s a connection between the murder and that of a former patient years before, and the two friends begin chasing clues.

Carr’s 2005 novel The Italian Secretary was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and the relationship at the centre of The Alienist owes more than a little to Conan Doyle. Moore is loyal and long suffering, while Kreizler is imperious and button pushing. Their investigation has the tacit support of another old Harvard chum, Teddy Roosevelt (a wildly miscast Brian Geraghty), the then-police commissioner, who loans them his secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), and two young detectives, Jewish brothers Marcus and Lucius, who are versed in new-fangled forensic techniques such as fingerprinting. Roosevelt’s reformist agenda has put him at odds with his predecessor, Thomas Byrnes (Ted Levine), and the cops in the department still loyal to their former boss seem intent on obstructing the investigation.

This is the kind of thing Netflix does well. The filmmakers built 10 blocks of 19th-century New York in Budapest, and the breadth is immersive, with everything from Delmonico’s to the Metropolitan Opera to Lower East Side tenements rendered in lavishly budgeted detail. The writers include Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), E. Max Frye (Something Wild), Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and John Sayles (Lone Star), and the directors include veterans of series such as Black Mirror and The Fall. A couple of them also directed episodes of Penny Dreadful, another show with a pungent atmosphere of gas-lamp dread and a ragtag family at its centre.

That series riffed on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in 1897, a year after this one is set. As with shows such as The Knick, the turn of the century provides a chance to glimpse the modern world coming into being. The Alienist touches on women’s rights, the birth of psychology, the end of the frontier and the rise of socialism, with New York as the original melting pot. The killer targets poor “boy whores”, often immigrants, and race and class intersect even in Kreizler’s own home. As in Penny Dreadful, a black manservant with a violent past waits on white masters, and the series has made Mary, a former patient employed by Kreizler as a domestic servant, a Native American (she’s played by The New World’s Q’orianka Kilcher). One scene sees Kreizler’s paternalism explicitly called out by the manservant’s niece, in what feels like a retrofit inserted by the writers to cover their backs.

The show’s credit sequence, set to an ominous soundscape of industrial groans – a ship’s horn folding into the chug of a departing steam train – cycles through images of the city’s buildings, which disassemble before our eyes. The precariousness of what’s been built is uppermost in the mind of former commissioner Byrnes, whose obstructionism is motivated by survival: “we serve the rich, and in return they raise us above the primordial filth.” The barbarity on which the nation was built, and specifically the legacy of the West, proves the key to unlocking the killer’s identity, with scalping being one of his trademarks. The way in which Kreizler tries to find the killer via psychological profiling seems to me less interesting, for some of the same reasons that BBC One’s Sherlock palled. In a scene that feels like a magical shortcut, the doctor has a psychic moment in which he inhabits the killer’s point of view, and when he lies down on a bench in the man’s lair, he hears voices. The fact that his thesis is wrong – “it proves we don’t know anything; God works between the lines” – is finally both honest and unsatisfying.

What unites our heroes and the man they’re chasing is childhood trauma. Kreizler has even published a monograph titled The Harm We Do to Our Children Is Revisited on Ourselves, though he has no compunction in using his young ward, Stevie, as bait. The killer bonds with his victims through a shared hatred of parents, while Kreizler and Moore are both estranged from theirs, and Sara is hiding a secret about her father’s death. Mothers are particularly ogreish, with Sean Young popping up as the overly affectionate parent of a wealthy suspect, in a vivid subplot that runs out of puff halfway through.

The focus on the child allows the show to gesture at ideas about determinism, while its formal choices have a gimlet-eyed wit: witness a fade from three urchins huddled together in the street to a high-society gala hosted by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The filmmaking also places the viewer in the shoes of the killer, whose ability to climb buildings and traverse rooftops makes him seem almost supernatural. The camera mimics his dexterity and seeming omniscience, gliding over rooftops and bathhouse stalls or craning down from tenements to survey the street. This kind of level-changing is sometimes replaced by ghostly point-of-view shots; we watch from the angle of an upstairs window as our heroes approach the killer’s home, and there’s even a shot of him on a rooftop, looking out over the city, familiar from so many Batman movies – only this wounded child-turned-vigilante slakes his anger by butchering kids.

The final confrontation is presaged by a performance of Don Giovanni at the Met, the title character dragged down to hell by demons. But The Alienist’s sympathy for its own remorseless demon never wavers, and what follows dangles the possibility of both ascension and purification. Assuming the name of John the Baptist as well as that of the man who abused him, the killer combines the roles of cleanser and tormentor. He promises to take his marks to a “castle in the sky”, usually dismembering them at elevation. And he’s careful to leave their bodies close to water, after committing what he views, perhaps, as acts of liberation. “I baptise you with water, but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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Rainshadow’s heart of darkness
On Thea Astley and her classic novel

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, by Thea Astley. Text Publishing

When I travelled to North Queensland’s Palm Island, in 2005, to attend an inquest into a death in custody, I was venturing into Manbarra country and a story Thea Astley could have written. “If you happened upon this island,” she’d declared of Doebin, Palm’s fictional equivalent, “your eyes gummed to this mountain humped with riffled reef waters, you would be enchanted by that necklace of white beaches, foliage growing to the sea … palms waving casual welcome feathers”. Astley had a fascination with the fecundity and the rot of tropical life, with small communities where agoraphobia and claustrophobia commingle, and the spiritual decay that is a side effect of colonisation. She wrote of hard cases, misfits “living on a cyclonic edge”. And Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – the very tall, very broad, some said charismatic policeman suspected of killing Cameron Doomadgee in the local police station – was a perfect Astley character.

But of course, the writer had already explored parallel events. Her 1996 novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is based on an incident that took place on the Palm Island Mission 65 years earlier. In 1930, the island’s superintendent, Robert Curry, caught in the grip of psychosis, went on a murderous rampage. Curry, a Kurtz-like figure known to the Palm Islanders as “Boss” or “Uncle Boss”, was an ex-army man: a veteran of the Great War who oversaw the settlement of the island throughout the 1920s, establishing it as a kind of open-air jail for Aborigines who had proved “troublesome” on Queensland’s regular reserves.

The Aboriginal detainees cleared the land and erected buildings without even a horse or dray, and when eventually a dray came – with no horse – Uncle Boss Curry ordered the men to haul it themselves. He introduced gardening competitions, European dancing – so as to discourage traditional ceremonial dances – and a jazz band; those who failed to attend band practice could find themselves locked up.

As one of the island’s officials noted, “Mr Curry practically regarded this settlement as a child of his brain.” When rumours spread on the mainland that he was flogging young Aboriginal women, Curry suspected his rivals were trying to undermine him. Not that the allegations were false: without these whippings, he told his superiors, his “authority … would have been weakened”. He’d turned tyrannical in a place he described as akin to “living on the rim of a volcano”.

Curry hated the Palm Island doctor, an enmity that intensified when Curry’s wife died in childbirth. Drinking heavily in his grief, and dosed with novocaine for neuralgia, the superintendent donned a long red bathing suit and a bullet belt, and, with a gun in each hand, went berserk. First, he dynamited his own house with his drugged children inside, then he went out to shoot the doctor and burn down the settlement buildings: to kill the child of his brain. As the buildings burned, white staff gave a gun to a young Aboriginal man, Peter Prior, and deputised him to shoot Curry – and then they hid.

In The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, Curry becomes Captain Brodie; Peter Prior is Manny Cooktown; and Palm Island, Doebin Island.

“Time!” rapped out the superintendent, remembering the Somme. He stood ridiculously to attention on the empty beach, presenting arms in his long, shapeless bathing suit. He blinked and found … the beach empty except for the dot-pictures painted by rain …

Between body-rack and head-split he could not think beyond carnage …

Then Manny Cooktown, his fishing-boy, hunter and shooter, pride of his football team, stepped cautiously from behind the trees and yelled his predigested migaloo command, “Put your gun down, Uncle Boss, or I fire.”

Astley’s fascination with the Australian Gothic was influenced by the Southern Gothic of American writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, whose works explore damaged characters against a background of racial inequality. Astley transposed this sensibility to northern Queensland. The rainshadow – the dry western side of the Great Dividing Range – became a metaphor in her writing for the spiritual aridity that can affect those in the pall of the violent frontier. Many of the white inhabitants of Doebin end up after the Brodie affair making their lives in these hinterlands. Her characters all display the “multiple effects” of being in places they don’t necessarily want to be and where they don’t belong: frustration, shame, ennui, thwarted desire.

Trapped by a brutal system of apartheid, Astley’s people take their pleasures or consolations where they can. The novelist has an extraordinary eye for the banalities of lives surrounded by evil. Take, for example, her gorgeously rendered Christmas party: the white staff drunk “amid the claustrophobic socialising and the ragged streamers and tinsel and cotton-wool snow of Christmastide stuck up here in the melting tropics”; “rattan deckchairs bulging under the bums of staff and wives” in the “hot darkness”; a record playing, which “distorted [the] carol singers like a bad joke”. The superintendent, meanwhile, is aware only of his “aloneness and this bursting skull that paralleled the build-up”.

The novelist takes the juice of history and serves it to us fresh. She was interested in burnt-out cases, those afflicted with what she called “petrification of the spirit”: people who live in their “own mini-hells”. And Astley extended to them her great understanding. She claimed her work was “a plea for charity … to be accorded to those not ruthless enough or grand enough to be gigantic tragic figures”. In other words, Captain Brodie was perhaps as much a victim of the foetid, repressive atmosphere on Doebin – an atmosphere he had helped create – as anyone else.

How much sympathy one extends to the superintendent may depend on how one feels about the treatment of Manny Cooktown, or indeed Peter Prior.

In 1930, Prior, after being deputised to shoot the rampaging Palm Island superintendent, was charged with his murder and locked up for six months. In Straight from the Yudaman’s Mouth (1993), a book he collaborated on with his daughter Renarta, Prior recalled his time in jail:

The days were not too bad … but from my first night out there all of my nightmares began. It was very lonely in the cell at night, I was missing my family and when I finally dozed off to sleep, I would see Mr Curry’s face and it was always the same dream. Even now, I can see him lying on the beach in pain and just staring at me.

At trial, Prior was found not guilty, but for the rest of his life he would continue to dream of Uncle Boss Curry. The journalist Tony Koch told me he interviewed Prior when the Palm Islander was very elderly and both his legs had been amputated due to diabetes. Prior started crying because he was scared to die. God commanded, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and he had.

The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow opens with Manny Cooktown’s point of view, and his perspective continues in italicised sections that are interspersed between Astley’s more nuanced exploration of Doebin’s white characters. The extent to which the novel succeeds will therefore hinge on the reader’s sense of Manny Cooktown’s voice: “An he scared too an he fire … see big red blotch on Boss’s belly and the blood spreadin and he cry and say, Sorry Uncle Boss. Real sorry.

Astley is impeccably sensitive to the horrors of the frontier – she had an abiding hatred of the way Indigenous Australians are treated. But this is a colonial book. It describes, from the point of view of the coloniser, the psychological scars of slavery and segregation. And what if an unintended rainshadow effect is the replication of this power structure within the novel itself? The sections written in the cadences of Aboriginal Australian English will strike some contemporary readers as evocative and deeply poetic, but others will regard the style as unfortunate cultural appropriation. Is this the quagmire into which non-Indigenous writers can always so easily tread, replicating the inequities we are critiquing?

In the final chapter, Astley develops a previously minor character, Manny Cooktown’s son Normie. A politically astute child then man, Normie has been educated at a mainland boarding school before returning to the oppressive conditions of Doebin. He receives a letter from his former teacher Mr Vine, who suggests Normie keep a diary so that the events on the island don’t lose their reality for him over time, and become “as fiction … fragile and unmemorable”.

“Fuckin fiction!” Normie responds, before writing a one-sentence reply:

This fiction, it don’t go away.

Astley seems to be issuing a disclaimer to any complaints time may throw her way.

The novelist, by following decades of history, quietly captures the way cycles of repression keep repeating. The novel ends with a brutal government response to the islanders’ strike over conditions and pay, which took place on Palm in 1957. Like William Faulkner – who knew about the brutalities of segregation – Astley knew the past is never dead and buried. This tale would keep looping on.

Thea Astley died, after a prolific and celebrated career, in August 2004.

Four months later, on Palm Island, a local man named Cameron Doomadgee swore at Senior Sergeant Hurley, the island’s officer-in-charge, and within 40 minutes he was dead on a cell floor with a black eye, a bruised jaw, and a ruptured liver and portal vein. On a cell surveillance tape he is shown writhing on the concrete floor, calling for help; and when eventually an officer does come in, he kicks Doomadgee; then, kicking him again, realises the man is dead.

What followed was a farcical investigation conducted by Hurley’s friends and apologists in the Queensland Police Service. The senior sergeant claimed he and Doomadgee had both tripped over a step and landed side by side. Only later, when he learnt the extent of Doomadgee’s injuries, did Hurley change his story – he must have landed on the prisoner with a knee in his abdomen, then forgotten all about it.

Two and a half years later, Hurley was tried for manslaughter – an uncanny reversal of the Peter Prior trial. In court, Hurley’s lawyers admitted that he was physically responsible for Doomadgee’s death, but claimed that the fatal injuries had been accidentally administered.

Hurley, in the witness stand – and in his police interviews – never gave a sign of regret or remorse. Two metres tall, with stony features and hair parted down the centre, he looked like a man if not from the First World War generation, like Curry, then from the Second. He cut a figure from an era before voting rights, before land rights, before reconciliation. In appearing to be from an earlier time, he was utterly of his time: a Howard-era man who would never say sorry. In the smelter of white guilt and sorrow and resentment and confusion, he was cast as an underdog. The jury acquitted Hurley, although it seemed he was not so much found not guilty as forgiven.

Our past is a long way from being past, and Astley understood that this is the rainshadow we all still live under.

Chloe Hooper
Chloe Hooper is the author of The Engagement, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man.

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