31 January 2008

In honour of Heath Ledger (1979-2008), who remained actively involved in Australian film even after his success in Hollywood, Thursday picks five of the best Australian films of the past 30 years.

My Brilliant Career (1979)

When Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda, Charlotte Gray) was invited to direct the film of Miles Franklin’s turn-of-the-century outback classic My Brilliant Career, she had to fight the distributors’ wish to tack on a traditional romantic happy ending to this story of a woman who chooses a career over marriage and childrearing. The heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, has not actually chosen what her brilliant career will be, but she knows that she belongs to “the world of art, the world of literature and the world of music”, rather than the domestic life expected of a woman in the outback in 1900. Armstrong made a controversial decision to cast then-unknowns Judy Davis and Sam Neill as the two leads. Fortunately, the director stuck to her guns, and her wishes were respected, resulting in one of the masterpieces of Australian cinema.

Flirting (1991)

Flirting is the second film in a planned (but uncompleted) trilogy by John Duigan about the coming-of-age of Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), a boy born in rural New South Wales. In Flirting, he goes to boarding school, where he meets Anglo-African Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton). Despite her posh upbringing and status as the daughter of a high-level Ugandan diplomat, Thandiwe is taunted by the other girls because of her racial and ethnic difference and her rebelliousness against the sexual repression of 1960s Australia. None of this bothers Danny, who is also a bit of an outcast due to his inauspicious roots and wiry physique, and he and Thandiwe begin a romance against the odds. If Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton don’t provide enough star power for you, Flirting also features Nicole Kidman and an almost unrecognisably mousy Naomi Watts before their migration to Hollywood.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Before Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, there was Strictly Ballroom. Despite its significantly lower budget, Baz Luhrmann’s first film has the same attention to aesthetics and soundtrack that defines his later movies. Strictly Ballroom tells the story of pro ballroom dancer Scott Hastings, who wants to introduce new steps into his Latin American dance routine, much to the dismay of the traditional and self-important Australian Dancing Federation. When his long-term partner leaves him, he begins dancing with ugly duckling beginner ballroom student Fran, who also wants to spice up his routine. Strictly Ballroom manages to be a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek satire of the ballroom establishment, a sweet romance and a showcase for beautiful dance sequences.

The Piano (1993)

A joint production between New Zealand and Australia, this film has won an obscene amount of awards since it was first released in 1993, including the Palme D’or and a Best Actress Oscar for Holly Hunter (even though she has no dialogue). Hunter plays a mute mother, Ada, shipped from Scotland with her daughter in order to marry a New Zealander, Alastair Stewart, played by Sam Neill. Ada’s young daughter, Flora, played by Anna Paquin, is the only person who understands her sign language. To add to the already difficult situation Stewart cannot understand her attachment to her beloved piano which he leaves dumped on the beach after their arrival. Their marriage remains unconsummated and leads into a beautifully choreographed affair between Ada and Stewart’s best friend which revolves around Ada’s desire to absorb herself in her playing. The exquisitely beautiful piano score by Michael Nyman is award worthy as it is. The hype surrounding this film wasn’t wasted.

Muriel’s wedding (1994)

Most would call this the definitive Australian chick flick and Toni Collette’s break-out role. The premise is like many others: a lonely, geeky girl in a backwards town somewhere in Australia sits in her room endlessly playing ABBA records and dreaming of a beautiful white wedding. She decides to change things and make something of her life by heading to Bali where she meets some unusual types and effectively begins the rest of her life. It seems like we’ve heard it all before, yet this film has more to give: is it just a chick flick? Some kind of travel movie? A take on some serious social issues? Difficult topics such as suicide and cancer aren’t sidestepped. However, the centre of the film is just as gooey and feel-good as others of the same type.