Australia Day review – Kriv Stenders bites off more than he can chew in unfocused new film

The fragmented multicultural drama from the director of Red Dog and Boxing Day is all sparks and no fire

The Red Dog director Kriv Stenders’ new film is the sort of project you can imagine a public broadcaster happily investing in: a button-pushing multicultural drama set on Australia Day, following three groups of people from varying backgrounds. Revolving around the stories of troubled teenagers, Stenders substitutes booze, barbecues and the Hottest 100 for drug addiction, racially motivated violence and the trafficking of sex workers.

This grim subject matter could suggest a high-flown production in the style of an arthouse indie, but Australia Day is a much pacier affair, with a busy, thumping visual style suggestive of a director fearful of losing the audience’s interest – as if they might change the channel at any time. A little like television, in other words, which is where the film is heading. After Sydney film festival screenings and a subsequent theatrical run, it will air this year on Foxtel.

Off the back of the premise I correctly anticipated short, chopped-up moments of heightened drama, spread here and there in an interwoven narrative, the pieces making more sense as they gradually come together. But I wasn’t expecting so much running. Boy oh boy is there running.

After the sound of sirens and an establishing shot of central Brisbane, where the film is set, Stenders kicks off by revealing one below-the-hip shot of a pair of legs hotfooting it. Then another pair, and another after that. Three separate people and three sets of situations to escape.

Lan (Jenny Wu) is a Chinese sex slave running away from an illegal brothel. April (Miah Madden) is fleeing a car crash. Sami (Elias Anton) is being chased by a group of young angry white men for a crime he didn’t commit. Each character encounters others who help or hinder them. They include a ruined cattle farmer (Bryan Brown) who is unsure what to do with Lan; a guilt-riddled Aboriginal police officer (Shari Sebbens) who vows to come to April’s rescue; and a scary white dude (Sean Keenan) who, with his friends, binds Sami to a chair and beats him.

All the performances are fine, though the short-burst narrative structure clips their impact. Occasionally overdone dialogue doesn’t help either, such as, “Happy Australia Day, it’s fuckin’ ours now,” and, “Brown skin can do just as much damage as white.”

The frame bobs and swings around, half circle-type movements the defining visual flourishes from the cinematographer, Geoffrey Hall (who shot Red Dog: True Blue and the Wolf Creek TV spin off). His restless, handheld, gliding camerawork fits Australia Day’s broader mentality, in the sense it indicates a film constantly in search of something. A raison d’être, or a meaty topic to sink its teeth into.

Is the film about racially motivated gang violence, like The Combination? Is it a study of disenfranchised youth, like The Finished People or Wasted on the Young? Is it about the dangers of drug addiction, like Pure Shit? An exposé about human trafficking and sex slaves, à la The Jammed and parts of Goldstone? An examination of Aboriginal people relegated to the outskirts of city life, as in The Fringe Dwellers?

Stephen M Irwin’s nothing-if-not-ambitious screenplay touches on all these things, but biting off more than it can chew, it is ultimately about none of them. A story with plenty of sparks and no fire. For a moment Australia Day even looked set to detour into the domain of a sniper movie, only to (thankfully) abandon that tangent as well.

A still from Australia Day
‘Over-sauced and loosely disciplined.’ Photograph: Vince Valitutti

The film’s visual style is its greatest asset; the one thing the story’s fragmented structure doesn’t shortchange. But there are times when it feels over-sauced and loosely disciplined. Why, for example, would the director cut to a bird’s eye drone shot of a character running? What purpose does that serve?

Aerial images were deployed in David Wenham’s directorial debut, Ellipsis. There the point is clear: they remind us that the characters whose lives we are observing comprise only a small portion of many, perhaps countless stories in the city. But in Australia Day that point about multiple perspectives is already made with its Robert Altman-esque crosscutting narrative. These shots feel more about provision of momentary stimulus than a result of an underlying, unifying approach.

Stenders, Hall and Sean Keenan will soon head into trepidatious waters, with their contemporary TV version of Wake in Fright in the works. It is being billed as a re-adaptation rather than a remake. Fair enough; you’d be crazy to tie a new TV show too closely to one of the greatest Australian films ever made, an example of complete storytelling and aesthetic consistency.

Here’s hoping the next screen adventure of the stranded-in-nowhere teacher John Grant has more in common with the discipline, rigour and control of Stenders’ best film: the terrific single-setting 2007 drama Boxing Day. Which, come to think of it, is another bleak portrait of an Australian public holiday. What will the director do when he gets his hands on the Queen’s birthday? The writing on the wall suggests it won’t be a puff piece about the royal family.

• Australia Day is now showing at Sydney film festival


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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