(2017, Rachel Perkins)
[3 out of 5 stars]
I've read the book by Craig Silvey this film is based one and I've also seen its play adaptation by Belvoir St Theatre. Out of all three, this is the gentlest this story has been told. It's described by many people as the Australian 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. The story itself has a lot to say about race relations specific to Australia and deals with specific issues like the isolation of rural Australians. There's adultery, a murder, small town hysteria and all this is happening with the tension provoked by the Vietnam War. There is a lot to juggle and there's a sense that the filmmakers bit off more than they can chew. The film gets preoccupied with faithfully (perhaps too faithfully) adapting the source material and lacks the focus and conviction it needed.
As stated earlier, I'm quite familiar with the material and I couldn't help but compare. What struck me most clearly this time was how the central character, Charlie is probably the least interesting character out of anyone. He’s an authorial proxy - the story is told from his perspective (it begins with a knock on his window) and everything happens around him, standing only as the observer of everyone else’s drama. He's the protagonist but he comes across as insignificant, even dispensable. Remove him entirely, replaced with an omnipresent narrator and you won't lose much.
An Aboriginal boy, Jasper Jones, comes to his window and this is where it all begins. Jasper takes Charlie to a glade where he shows him the body of Laura Wishart, beaten, dead, and hanging from a tree. Laura is Jasper's girlfriend and being the rebellious outsider in this small town, he is sure to be blamed for Laura's death.
But the question of why Jasper would show Charlie this secret has lingered in my mind. It just doesn't make sense. It's a novelistic device, a situation that a writer could dream up and use for their story and there are a lot of those in here and though it didn't bother me while I was reading the book, it is amplified in this adaptation, mainly because of how the narrative is compressed and the characters become less realistic and become more representational. There isn't enough time for them to grow and breathe. Toni Colette, as Charlie's mother makes the most of what she is given and becomes the most memorable character out of anyone.
We get glimpses of Jeffrey Lu's life, Charlie's Vietnamese best friend, who is a brilliant cricket player but is largely ignored by the team, presumably because of his race. Again, he's another convenient character placed close to Charlie in order to deliver the themes and message. It is essentially a story about outsiders. The cliched depictions, however, dilutes what could be a very potent, and timely story.
It is a serviceable adaptation. It is shot beautifully and the production and costume design builds a strong sense of time and place. But the lack of interpretation was a lost opportunity. This kind of story is best suited as a novel and there's hardly anything cinematic about it save the location and period.
IN AUSTRALIAN CINEMAS NOW
Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment