Skip to main content

The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.


Walkabout
(1971)

WARNING SPOILERS Nicolas Roeg’s first fully-fledged film, following the co-directed Performance, is a coming-of-age tale of unparalleled insight, flowing with the distinct and rich visual approach to narrative that would define, and be refined in, his subsequent career.

The bare bones of plot are straightforward (Edward Bond's screenplay was only 14 pages); a teenage schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter, luminous) and her young brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son) are left to fend for themselves in the Outback when their father takes his life (having attempted to take them with him). A young Aboriginal man (David Gulpilil, now very well known but in his first film role) comes to their aid, himself undergoing the walkabout ritual of passage to adulthood. It is the sensibility that Roeg brings to the piece that dazzles, with an intelligence and understanding that he imbues in every frame. He is a rare director of unspoken insight, thematic depth and resonance.

The backdrop of nature, both harsh and beautiful, is a constant accompaniment as the boy sees himself in an adventure while the girl is preoccupied with survival and her lack of knowledge of how to protect her brother. When the Aboriginal boy arrives this is exposed further, as she is frequently uncomprehending of his intentions and behaviour. Her brother, in contrast, has no preconceptions and is quickly able to communicate with him, despite the language barrier.

The theme of innocence, both of nature and youth, is central to Roeg throughout. Sometimes this translates a little heavy-handedly, as do some of his visual and editing choices. Agutter’s gaze is fixed upon Guliplil’s modest covering, acknowledging her nascent sexuality, but it is intercut with her imagining of the site of her father’s burnt out car overrun by similarly unfettered Aborigines. The lasciviousness of the scientists (and workers) undertaking weather experiments is played a touch too broadly as a contrast to the trio’s experience. It shouts out the theme it is highlighting. The men drool over the female scientist while Agutter swims naked, carefree and momentarily attuned wit her enviroment (as if to emphasise this, the Aboriginal boy is not present, even in a voyeuristic capacity). The encounter that follows with a woman whose husband belittles his Aboriginal workers, which the Aboriginal boy studiously leads the siblings away from (although this would surely have resulted in a speedier return by them to the safety of civilization), is more effective but still feels slightly like it is ladling what would be more effective table spooned.

The (staggered) return to civilization underlines that the freedom of nature and of their companionship has been fleeting, as death bookends the experiences of sister and brother. Arriving at a deserted farm where there appear to be unmarked graves, the girl fearfully rejects the Aboriginal boy’s courtship ritual; tellingly she has earlier announced her boundary lines, both in terms of class and culture, when she instructs him to fetch water. Spurned, he commits suicide. The coda as Agutter’s character, now married and in a domestic arrangement not dissimilar to the one we saw her father in at the opening, daydreams of her Outback experience (more idyllically than we saw it) shows her longing for an experience she was unable to fully understand and appreciate at the time.

Roeg’s direction and photography are stunning, and John Barry’s score is beautiful and evocative. The central performances are natural and lucid and, as with all of Roeg’s work, there is an approach to editing that shows keen awareness of the fractured nature of consciousness, experience and memory. That, and a pervading sense of the individual’s interaction with his or her environment (be it unvarnished nature or the concrete jungle). The theme of the alien figures strongly throughout his first decade or so as a director; alien to oneself, to those around one, and to one’s environment. It seems a little churlish not to give this quite the full grade, but Roeg occasionally smites the screen when he might be better to work more subtly (the cuts from Gulpilil hunting to a butcher chopping up meat tend to oversell the message). Nevertheless, it is a film to be savoured, from a true master of cinema who goes ever under-appreciated.

****1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …