Friday, June 05, 2015

Charlie’s Country: His Land, Their Rules

It is tempting to use the standard anti-colonialist prism to analysis Aboriginal grievances, but it is important to remember twenty percent of modern day Australians are descended from the British prisoner population. Hardly Conquistadors, they had little choice in their relocation. Old leathery Charlie is in no mood for such distinctions and it is hard to blame him when he is harassed by the gun-grabbing, spear-confiscating police in Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Initially, Charlie seems like a rather happy-go-lucky fellow, who is always willing to help his fellow Aboriginals in a sleepy Northern Territory village. However, his strained banter with the local white coppers hints at the deep resentments he has long nursed. Increasingly disgusted by the poverty and dependence surrounding him, Charlie would like to spend more time in the bush country, living off the land, but the cops makes it almost impossible by first seizing his unlicensed highwayman-style firearm and then taking his jury-rigged spear. It is especially galling considering Charlie’s past gratis assistance tracking fugitives.

After a few misadventures and an unfortunate hospital stint, Charlie drifts to the relatively big city of Darwin, where he falls in with a group of homeless Aboriginals. They welcome him like a rock star, because he is not legally banned from buying “grog”—at least not yet (a paternalistic policy that is deeply problematic on multiple levels, yet hard to condemn with apoplectic outrage).

Yes, economic marginalization, depression, and alcoholism are all significant factors in Charlie’s Country. Hmm, does that ring any bells? In fact, the entire film will feel familiar to anyone who has seen just about any well-meaning native peoples drama.  We basically know where Charlie is coming from and where he is going, so do not expect any great surprises to come around the bend.

Be that as it may, Country is an excellent showcase for de Heer’s lead and co-screenwriter, David Gulpilil, one of Australia’s preeminent Aboriginal actors, starting with Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout and continuing through Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. He brings great depth and range to Charlie, guaranteeing the film never slides into clichéd angry outsider exploitation terrain. This is a character study, not Falling Down in the Outback.

As Australia’s most recent foreign language Oscar submission, it rather baffling that Country did not generate more buzz, because it comes from an established director and offers up king-sized portions of white guilt. Frankly, it is also a bit surprising the rule sticklers did not disqualify Country for its considerable English dialogue. More notably, it features a remarkably mature and assured central performance and some striking natural backdrops, lensed to awe by cinematographer Ian Jones. Earnest and consistently well-acted, but easily predictable from start to finish, Charlie’s Country is recommended for patrons of protest cinema and Gulpilil admirers when it opens today (6/5) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.