April 4, 2022


‘Straight to the pool room’: 25 years of ‘The Castle’

By Russell Marks
Still image showing Anthony Simcoe, Stephen Curry, Michael Caton and Anne Tenney in The Castle. Image supplied

Anthony Simcoe, Stephen Curry, Michael Caton and Anne Tenney in The Castle. Image supplied

Its one-liners are firmly entrenched in the national lexicon, but, a quarter of a century later, what does the classic film tell us about Australia?

Charles “Bud” Tingwell’s wife of 45 years, Audrey, died in June 1996. She’d been sick for some time, and Tingwell had stepped away from acting entirely to care for her in their Doncaster home. Following a remarkable career – he’d been the youngest announcer on Sydney radio, a fighter pilot during the Italian Campaign, a regular face in films shot in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s, a heart-throb soap star in England and a mainstay of the Crawford TV shows (as both actor and director) when he returned to Australia – roles for Tingwell had slowed up by the 1990s. After Audrey’s death he now faced the prospect of learning to live alone in what amounted to a forced retirement.

During the week before her funeral, an especially large bunch of flowers arrived at Tingwell’s home. They were from the young team of well-educated comedians who called themselves Working Dog, with whom Tingwell had worked on The Late Show. A few days after the funeral, Working Dog’s Rob Sitch called Tingwell and offered him both his condolences and a supporting role in a film they were making. They’d written the character of Lawrence Hammill QC, Sitch said, especially for him. Tingwell agreed immediately, and later reflected that the filming – among the most enjoyable experiences of his career – was the best form of therapy.

Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner and Santo Cilauro had met at Melbourne University, from which they’d graduated in, respectively, medicine, law and law. Jane Kennedy joined them via their D Generation Breakfast Show on Triple M. After two seasons of Frontline, the Working Dog team created The Castle, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, on an extraordinarily low budget of $750,000. Its production quickly became the stuff of industry legend, with most things done in-house. Actors Michael Caton and Anne Tenney were already well-known from The Sullivans and A Country Practice. Once they were on board, the cast read through the script four times together – like old-time theatre, Tingwell recalled delightedly – before they raced through the filming in just 11 days, which was how long they could extend the catering budget according to the fifth Working Dog, Michael Hirsh. Cilauro said the whole thing took about five weeks from conception to rough cut. It’s since made well over $10 million.

It’s not often that an Australian film becomes genuinely popular with mainstream audiences, though when The Castle was released on April 10, 1997, we were becoming accustomed to the idea. Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee – another film made without government funding – became the global blockbuster of 1986. Strictly Ballroom did attract funding (despite the Film Finance Corporation’s objection to first-time director Baz Luhrmann) and made back its budget more than 25 times. Muriel’s Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Shine launched the Hollywood careers of P. J. Hogan, Scott Hicks, Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving and Geoffrey Rush.

That an Australian film enters the enigmatic world of quotable pop culture is incredibly rare. It’s still difficult to think of any films other than Dundee and Mad Max that have done so. By the end of 1997, the phrases “Tell him he’s dreaming”, “How’s the serenity?” and “This is going straight to the pool room” had entered our lexicon. Twenty-five years later, they’re still part of the national phrasebook.

The Castle’s most famous line, of course, is articulated by the hapless suburban lawyer Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora, from Frontline) in his memorable submission to the Federal Court judge (Robyn Nevin): “In summing up, it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s the vibe, and… uh, no, that’s it, it’s the vibe.” What began as an incompetent submission in a funny movie is now occasionally used in actual courtroom discourse, where “the vibe” is a handy shorthand to refer to existing concepts such legislative intent.

But why did The Castle resonate so broadly? Because it’s a fantasy of egalitarianism, family, community and popular notions of individual justice, which is to say that it tapped into prevalent ideas of what constitutes an Australian national identity. These ideas find all kinds of expression: in the political sphere, they can be found in the labour movement, the Liberal Party, Pauline Hanson and among anti-vaxxers. When The Castle appeared, those concepts were under threat by an ideology known as economic rationalism and increasingly as neoliberalism (and its administrative expression, new public management).

These ideas affect ordinary people in myriad ways, usually by augmenting the power of private interests – which are accountable to (often corporate) shareholders – over the rights and interests of citizens and society, and by eroding the capacity of governments and parliaments to defend the rights and interests of citizens and society, including by undermining the very idea that they should.

In The Castle, the “ordinary people” are the Kerrigans and their neighbours on Highview Crescent in the outer Melbourne suburb of Coolaroo. The neoliberal threat is the proposed compulsory acquisition of their properties by an airport expansion consortium, AirLink, backed by both the Victorian and federal governments (the Coalition controlled both at the time of the film’s release, which perhaps lent an extra air of plausibility to its plot). But the state has never been a benevolent force for the Kerrigans. Their backyard is on toxic landfill. Their eldest son is in jail. They’re a suburban family caught perennially between the twin threats: taxes and interest rates. (More than one reviewer wondered whether The Castle’s tertiary-educated creators were laughing with or at the Kerrigans.)

Families and communities in the late 20th century were fracturing, but the Kerrigans have a very strong bond, and their neighbours – Jack, Yvonne and Farouk – swing in steadfastly behind them. Inequality had been on the rise since the late 1970s, but greyhound-racing, tow truck-driving Darryl Kerrigan strikes up a genuine friendship with Lawrence Hammill, a Queen’s Counsel who comes out of retirement to act pro bono for (of all causes) the Kerrigans’ property rights.

It’s an egalitarian fantasy for both real-world Kerrigans and real-world Hammills. Just as Kerrigans enjoy the idea that they have access to the kind of status and professional power exercised by Hammills, Hammills like to entertain the notion that they’re generous, charitable and would certainly enjoy a weekend fishing trip with a Kerrigan at Bonnie Doon, if only they could meet one.

Perhaps the greatest of The Castle’s fantasies is that which has the Kerrigans, albeit with the aid of their fairy godmother Hammill, prevail in the High Court on a rights-based constitutional argument. “He quoted cases, he quoted laws,” Stephen Curry’s Dale tells us, “but Dad nearly fell off his chair when Mr Hammill finished by quoting Dad.” This is the populist idea that the law is, in the end, based in folk-wisdom, common sense and the deeply held grievances of ordinary people. Very occasionally this idea is borne out. Mostly though, courts work to protect the interests of those with financial resources, including by discouraging people of limited means from even commencing litigation.

Section 51(xxxi) of the Constitution gives the Commonwealth parliament the power to make laws about “the acquisition of property on just terms” from any person for certain purposes. In The Castle, Hammill succeeds, apparently by convincing the justices that the phrase “on just terms” doesn’t allow the consortium to reduce Darryl Kerrigan’s intangible assets – his family’s memories and their idea of “home” – to a dollar amount if Kerrigan says that what he has can’t be bought. It’s an argument that would certainly fail in the real world: courts routinely put dollar values on intangibles. But the point of The Castle’s fantasy is that it gives expression to a popular opposition to what routinely happens in courts.

If ever there was a time that a fantasy like the Kerrigans’ High Court outcome was going to sound halfway plausible, though, it was the 1990s. While the Constitution only expressly guarantees a handful of rights (trial by jury, religious freedom, the right to not be discriminated against on the basis that you’re from interstate), in 1992 the High Court had “found” a couple of rights nobody knew had existed. One was an implied constitutional right to political communication, which flows logically from the fact that the Constitution creates a representative democracy. Another was the common law right to native title, recognised elsewhere but always hitherto rejected by Australian courts. The Castle references the Mabo case by drawing a parallel with the Kerrigans’ plight, though the Kerrigans were at least being financially compensated.

Twenty-five years later, The Castle more than holds up. It’s a heart warmer, mostly because it lets us escape for an hour and a half into a world that is governed, in the end, by principles of fairness and justice.

If only the same principles governed the Australia we live in. Even before the federal budget, our governments had already committed us to donate – in the form of subsidies – $55.3 billion to the fossil fuel industry. Government funding to private schools has grown five times more rapidly than funding to public schools. Housing, aged care, legal aid and child safety systems are chronically broken. Instead of beginning the massive repair job on the welfare state’s decaying safety net, last week’s budget promises to further corrode it ahead of the enormous Stage Three tax cuts from 2019 – to cost the community $19 billion every year – which commence in 2024.

The Australian state is of lesser and lesser help to today’s Kerrigans in limiting the power of corporate interests. And there’s no Lawrence Hammill QC to come to the rescue.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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