The Sapphires

The Sapphires has just been released and I highly recommend it if you get the chance to see it. It boasts a strong cast, a story inspired by real indigenous Australian women, groovy 60s music and fashion, romance and drama, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

You don’t really need to know the history or politics of the era to enjoy the film, although there are some elements that might not make as much sense. Director Wayne Blair and writer Tony Briggs (the real life inspirations for The Sapphires are his mum and aunties) focus on the individuals and their interpersonal conflict and growth. It shows an aspect of my country’s complicated history and legacy that is sometimes overlooked but presents it in a simple way that is all about the people, not  a movement. Their stories reflect larger issues, but there is little tub-thumping.

The characters are introduced in a couple of delightfully brief and precise scenes. Bossy Gail, highly charged Cynthia and young Julie are sisters on the remote Cummeragunja mission. They enter a talent competition emceed by drifter Dave Lovelace, and lose to a talentless white woman who murders a Seekers song. They lose because they are black and it is clear they aren’t welcome. In an ‘only in movies’ decision, they join forces with Dave and line up an audition to entertain the troops in Vietnam. In Melbourne for the gig, they go track down their long lost cousin. Kay was taken from her mother by the mission people and represents the experience of the stolen generation. Tupperware parties are a long way from life on the mission and Kay is embarrassed by her country cousins at first. Tensions flare but the girls get through the auditions and head to Saigon.

Their experience in Vietnam is limited to glimpses as they travel and encounters with the US servicemen in the clubs and bases where they perform. I didn’t mind that the war was almost peripheral as it suited the scale of the story, and the way the girls reacted very much reflected their characters and experience. This is their story, told in highly entertaining style.

Gail is an aggressive woman with a chip on her shoulder, often using threats of violence or actual violence to get her way. But she is also a loving sister and friend, and her smile is radiant when she is happy. The reasons for Gail’s behaviour are revealed as she becomes less guarded. Her relationship with Dave adds another dimension to Gail’s character and through him we get to learn more about what drives her. Deb Mailman is one of my favourite actresses and speaks volumes with just a look.  Her eyes would sparkle with hilarity when Dave tried to be cool and I completely believed her grief when she sang the blues. She is perfect as the bossy and abrasive Gail.

Chris O’Dowd plays Dave Lovelace as the stereotypical drunk Irishman who sorts himself out when he finds a purpose. He appoints himself as the group’s manager and stops them singing Country & Western which is reason enough to love him. Dave explains the negative influence of Country music as follows – Country music is all about people who have lost everything and then sit around whining whereas soul music is about people who have lost everything but are fighting to get it back. And that is a part of the story, the fight to repair yourself and to ultimately be happy. His performance is in the lackadaisical style I expect from Chris O’Dowd, but no less charming for being predictable. Dave’s asides and one-liners are fun and his dance moves are tragic.

Kay (Shari Sebbens), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy, an Australian Idol runner-up) complete the main enesmble. They get a bit less of the spotlight in the film but I think they all have enough time to develop their characters.  Kay was forcibly removed from her family and raised as a white girl. She doesn’t know where she fits in but won’t be bullied by Gail who thinks Kay isn’t black enough. Cynthia is a boy crazy diva and lives life to the fullest. She is outrageous and adds a dash of wild energy to the group. Jessica Mauboy’s acting was generally good but it was her singing (she sang for herself) that really lifted her performance.

The support cast is a mix of familiar and new faces. I liked Judith Lucy as the hard faced bitch who runs the local pub. Kylie Belling and Lynette Narkle are lovely as the sisters’ mother and grandmother. The family home is warm and ramshackle, with welcoming couches on the veranda, surrounded by carefully tended plants and always full of people. It’s a visual cue to the strength of country and belonging for the girls. Kay needs to return home physically and emotionally and Gail needs to welcome Kay back before she can forgive herself. Julie is a single mum, and even though she runs away to follow her sisters there is little recrimination about leaving her son behind. He is with his grandparents and extended family in that loving and inviting home, and it will all be waiting there for her.

Lest this sound too syrupy the film ends on a high spiked with some tongue in cheek humour, and a bit of a dance.

There are a few clunky scenes although they do serve a purpose in moving the drama along so I forgave them. I liked the energy of the film, the laconic humour and thoroughly Australian language, and I love the music (well, except the country and western) and the fashions of the era.

I read some reviews that criticise The Sapphires for being too lightweight and not showing more of the political context. I disagree. Life can be sad and make you cry and it can be fun and colourful. People can find acceptance and happiness where they least expect it. Not every film has to make an overt statement, and if you pay attention there are some neat observations in The Sapphires. Enjoy it for what it is, and see some wonderful Australian talent.  3 ½ stars!

Gallipoli (1981)

Gallipoli is an iconic film that encapsulates a lot of things Australians like to believe about ourselves. The notions of mateship, larrikinism and of course the ANZAC legend are intrinsic to the idealised version of ‘Australian’, but you don’t need to know about WWI to appreciate the film. The history of European occupation here is short and often brutal, and Gallipoli also raises questions about national identity and our tie to England.  The use by Britain of Australian and New Zealand troops in the front lines and as cannon fodder is part of the legend, and the tension between loyalty and resentment is always present in the film.

Running is a constant theme through the movie, and Peter Weir made a really unusual decision to use a piece of music that resolutely does not fit the era. Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre became a hit here after the film was released. While the electronic sound was at first startling, it helps boost the sense of urgency and propulsion in those scenes. It’s not a war film as such, although if you saw the dreadfully cheesed up trailer for the US market you might think so.

Peter Weir tells a story about friendship, and loss of trust in the powers that be.

Archy (Mark Lee) is a golden boy; blond, blue eyed, athletic, a capable stockman, a good kid. He is idealistic, naïf and likeable. He just wants to join up and defend his country. Archy struck me as a Boy’s Own type of hero, always doing the right thing and looking out for his mates. The film opens with him training for an upcoming sprint race, and talking to his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr). Their dialogue gives me a lump in the throat every time, because I know how this story ends.

There is a lovely scene of Uncle Jack reading to the spellbound younger kids and he is reading the bit from Kipling’s Jungle Book when Mowgli has to leave his pack and start life as a young man. And that’s what Archy thinks is his duty – leave home and be a man. Mark Lee gives Archy an angelic face and a sense of quiet determination. When he makes one decision that will reduce his personal safety, he looks to be hiding his fear as well as happiness and these subtleties really make the character.

Frank (Mel Gibson) is a more cynical character. Initially refusing to join up and fight for something he doesn’t believe in, he decides there may be more opportunities for a returned serviceman after the war. Frank is the more modern character in some respects. He doesn’t buy all the rhetoric, nor does he trust the people in charge. He is a charmer and a chancer, and as different from Archy as you could imagine. Being Irish, he sees the war as England’s war and doesn’t feel the patriotic fervour that leads young men in these country towns to sign up en masse. It’s so sad to see how many men and boys from one region are listed as war dead on country memorials. Mel Gibson has become a bad joke in recent years, and clearly has demons of his own to deal with. It’s refreshing to see him back when he was just a nice looking guy who could really act. His is the strongest performance in the cast as he shows the most change in his personality and is the instigator for many memorable moments.

Archy and Frank are amateur sprinters and they meet in competition. They bond through what I will say is a typically male enterprise – taking a shortcut without really knowing the directions.

There is another myth I think a lot of Australians like to believe about ourselves, which is that we are at one with the land and can survive in the great outdoors. The reality is, of course, that if you drop most of us in the outback we’d be goners.

The boys cross paths again at a training exercise where they are supposed to pretend to kill each other, and Archy manages to get Frank transferred into the Light Horse. They have great chemistry and their friendship is really fun.

The ensemble of backing actors is fantastic. Many are better known for work on stage and TV, but Australia has such a small performing arts sector that actors do tend to work in multiple media. Robert Grubb, David Argue, and Tim McKenzie as Frank’s mates, and Bill Hunter as Major Barton are brilliant and get some of the best lines.

There is a scene where the troops were playing Aussie Rules near the Pyramids – it’s so Aussie! I loved it.

The boys also represent a gamut of views, with reasons for signing up ranging from patriotism to racism to hoping the girls fancy a man in uniform. They are the average blokes and their stories are shown in glimpses, not always articulated, but not neglected.

The cinematography by Russell Boyd is just sublime. A lot of the location shoot took place in South Australia, which also doubles for some of the Egyptian coast, and it is beautiful.









John Seale was among the crew who captured both the wide expanses of the outback and small intimate moments and made it all look beautiful. So much is told through imagery and juxtaposition of scenes that no words are required.

When I first saw Gallipoli, it was Archy that I felt for. He was just so … nice. When I’ve had occasion to watch it again, I relate more to Frank. He is imperfect, a bit full of himself, but he tries so hard to do the right thing when it matters. I think Frank is the modern viewpoint, questioning why he should be involved in someone else’s problems. While the characters are representations of the central argument, each of them is distinct and believable.

The brilliant screenplay by David Williamson contains the sweetness of bromance, comedy and also some bite. He doesn’t let the sentiment gloss over the less appealing behaviours that can spring from a sense of moral superiority or entitlement. Witty one-liners undercut the tension of the war and there are constant reminders that war is not an abstract concept, it is people fighting for their lives. He allows even the most unpleasant character to have some humanity so I can relate to all of them, like them or not. There are a couple of historical inaccuracies but as I am not a war historian, I don’t think it matters in terms of how the story plays out.

So back to my original thought. If you haven’t seen much or any Australian cinema, this might be a great place to start. I do love this film, and the themes really resonate for me. Leaving aside the ANZAC  connection, I would still say see it as Gallipoli has an engaging story and a witty and moving screenplay. It’s also a ‘Who’s Who’ of Australian film making. But mostly – it’s a great story beautifully rendered. 4 stars!