A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Queen Victoria creates Australia, 1900
On this day in 1900, the world’s sixth largest country was created by the Empress of India, Queen Victoria. It had of course existed since it broke away from Gondwana around 150-180 million years ago, and had been inhabited by various groups of indigenous “Australians” for at least 40,000 years. And collectively the landmass had been called Australia, or a variant on it, since before it had even been discovered – the Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Land of the South) of legend. But Australia had never existed as a political entity. Starting out initially as just one colony in New South Wales, it had grown piecemeal to become five self-governing Crown colonies. On 9 July 1900 Royal Assent was given to an act formally uniting the colonies into one federal government, which took power on 1 January 1901.
The Hunter (2011, dir: Daniel Nettheim)
There are a lot of great reasons to like The Hunter, but the way director Daniel Nettheim builds and sustains tension has to be the main one. It’s a real “who is this man, what is he doing, and is he going to get out alive” thriller that drops us in to its story and lets us work things out for ourselves.
Some things we do know. We know that Willem Dafoe plays the shadowy “hunter” Martin, a man with a high-velocity rifle hired by a shady organisation to go and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, an animal reputed to already be extinct. And, er, that’s about it. No, hang on, the shadowy organisation wants some bit of the animal, so it can take its DNA and do something with it, something despicable, we guess. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the man, the gun and the fact that at some point, if Martin doesn’t get the results that the mysterious Red Leaf outfit want, then he’s probably going to become extinct himself.
The quest, the struggle, is elemental, almost prehistoric, and Nettheim and Dafoe spend a lot of time putting us on the hunter’s side, introducing us slowly to Martin, showing us his skill as a hunter – saturating his clothes with wood smoke so the animals won’t smell him coming, for example. The film is similarly saturated with flavour and relationships. For a loner travelling incognito Martin gets about a bit – striking up an increasingly intimate relationship with a pretty mother (Frances O’Connor) and her children (including the remarkable Morgana Davies), or a more prickly one with the semi-affable local guide Jack (Sam Neill). As for the locals, a bitter and foul-mouthed bunch of dirt-poor yokels who don’t much go for the fancy ways of an outsider, they have a hickory pungency that adds to the sense of threat.
Peel back the flaps and the structure is Apocalypse Now or something biblical – the lone man going up a mountain in search of something mythical. But it’s a muddy Apocalypse Now, and we’re never quite sure if Martin is a good guy, though Dafoe’s wise broad face leads us to suggest there might be goodness in there. Possibly. This not-quite-knowingness is the film’s strongest suit, and Nettheim and writer Alice Addison tease us with genre expectations too – the tension of a thriller, the deferred money shot of a quest film, the tease of a fledgling romance, the threat of a borderland quasi-western, the righteousness of the eco-drama. Which will come out on top? Will Martin survive? Does the Tasmanian Tiger even exist? What is going on? Nettheim keeps us hanging on right to the very end.
- The primordial cinematography of Robert Humphreys
- A performance of psychological nuance by Dafoe
- The Tasmania settings
- Morgana Davies, star in waiting
© Steve Morrissey 2014