CHARLIE’S COUNTRY (M)
Stars: David Gulpilil, Luke Ford
Director: Rolf de Heer
Screening: selected cinemas (including Tower Cinemas Newcastle)
IN years to come, the work Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil have done together in the past dozen years will take an exalted place in the history of Australian film. There is no partnership like it in our cinema.
Through The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and now this beautiful culminating film, Gulpilil and de Heer have created a patchwork of Aboriginal stories, both spiritual and temporal. The Tracker was history, Ten Canoes was pre-history and Charlie’s Country is about the present.
Gulpilil’s contribution has increased with each film. The Tracker was largely de Heer’s take on the history of black and white relations in the 19th century outback, but with Ten Canoes, Gulpilil introduced de Heer to his country in Arnhem Land. They made a superb, romantic film based on cultural legends, an idyllic dreaming. Charlie’s Country is much more brutal and possibly the best film of the three. When it premiered in Cannes, the screening I saw received a seven-minute standing ovation. Gulpilil picked up a prize for best actor.
It is a majestic performance. Gulpilil plays shambolic old Charlie, down on his luck in an Arnhem Land community. His family takes most of his welfare cheque and they’ve crowded him out of his government house. He now lives in a tin humpy, so he can get some peace. He asks the white manager if he can have a new house. The answer is no, because he already has one.
‘‘But Errol, you’ve got a house and a job, on my land,’’ says Charlie, with implacable logic.
The film’s rich humour gives way to an increasingly nightmarish political reality. The federal government’s ‘‘intervention’’ is making life impossible. The police won’t let him shoot buffalo because he hasn’t paid the $60 hunter’s licence; they even impound his spear when he tries to hunt the traditional way. It’s a dangerous weapon. He goes bush to find food but his lungs pack up. In hospital in Darwin, he reflects on how far he is from home.
The film gives an eloquent portrait of contemporary Aboriginal life in the north, without quarter. The scenes of drinking in the long grass in Darwin are distressing. The way that alcohol is obtained even against strenuous prohibitions serves as a subtle demolition of the effects of the intervention.
Luke Ford has a small but resonant role as a policeman who goes from friendly but firm, when stationed in Charlie’s community, to brutal basher later in Darwin.
At the same time, this is no polemic. De Heer stays close to Charlie’s reality. Charlie is a proud man drifting from crisis to crisis, ever deeper in his isolation. It’s a devastating story, partly because we sense parts of it may not be that far from Gulpilil’s own struggles.
That’s not to take anything away from this performance. Gulpilil’s extraordinary grace and physical ease is still there, as it was in his first screen role 43years ago in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout. But his face is ravaged by time and history, and some of the close-ups here are terribly haunting. He shows us anger, resignation, defiance and sorrow at the same time, without a word.
The level of trust between actor and director here is part of the reason this work will live on. These films are a powerful window on Aboriginal culture, made as a collaboration rather than by a helicopter director. In every sense, they’re a gift to the nation.