Top End Wedding review – fresh air filtered through romcom formula

Miranda Tapsell’s performance is spot on and Wayne Blair’s direction assured in a film that’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food

In a world of war and countless crises, a global moratorium on airport scenes in romantic comedies might not be first on the list of emergencies humankind must address. Yet this awful trope, crammed into a horrific number of films, has terrorised us for too long. Something must be done.

The Australian director Jeffrey Walker had the gall to begin and end his 2017 romcom Ali’s Wedding with a lovestruck protagonist “racing” to the airport on a tractor.

So you can imagine how my gut sank when one of the lead characters in Wayne Blair’s affable and high-spirited romcom Top End Wedding arrived at Darwin airport both alone and at a romantic crossroads.

But thankfully the screenwriters Joshua Tyler and Miranda Tapsell – who also stars as a young lawyer, Lauren – had other things in mind. The airport is a place where the process of reconnecting begins rather than ends, and where the lure of the “love-on-the-run” trope is mostly resisted.

Shot by the cinematographer Eric Murray Lui in a clean, well-lit style reflecting the film’s wholesomeness, Top End Wedding begins in 1976 on the Tiwi Islands in a manner not entirely dissimilar to a dash-to-the-airport scene. Except that the bride has jumped on a fishing boat and is racing away from her wedding, not to it. This is later revealed to be a younger version of Lauren’s mother, Daffy (Ursula Yovich).

Jumping forward to present-day Adelaide, Lauren and her boyfriend, Ned (Gwilym Lee, fresh from playing Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody), decide to get married. But when Lauren returns to Darwin to inform her family, her mother is nowhere to be seen and her mopey father (Huw Higginson) is making a habit of spending time alone – in the pantry, where he slumps on the floor and weeps along to Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now.

A still from Top End Wedding
‘Blair embraces that sense of fresh air – the knowledge that his film, while formulaic, offers something different.’ Photograph: John Platt Photography/Universal Pictures International

Mum is missing and Lauren and Ned must find her. While prospective brides and grooms tend to avoid adding unnecessary pressure to an already stressful occasion, this couple – for reasons that largely eluded me – decide they simply have to tie the knot in 10 days.

The film goes on the road as the search begins, then eventually settles into a more thoughtful space as a multicultural comedy-drama. The approaching wedding scenario is familiar; it was at the heart of the enjoyable 2015 family comedy Alex & Eve, which united Lebanese Muslim and Greek Australian families, and in the messy but memorable 1979 comedy Dimboola.

In Dimboola, the narrator, a well-spoken Englishman, gets off a train at the start of the film and declares: “A country wedding: what a breath of fresh air after the hurlyburly of big cities!”

In Top End Wedding, Blair (whose oeuvre includes the crowd-pleasing The Sapphires and the underwhelming melodrama Septembers of Shiraz) embraces that sense of fresh air – the knowledge that his film, while formulaic, offers something different. The Tiwi Islands provide a wonderful location and stories involving Indigenous Australians marrying non-Indigenous people have won little consideration in Australian cinema’s 120-odd year existence.

But Tyler and Tapsell’s screenplay is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The writers lurch from seemingly effortless comedy to contrived drama; from short punchy moments to shaggy plotlines with long, dangling threads. The film, much like the characters, seems engaged in a constant state of finding itself. Like many well-made but unexceptional romcoms, Top End Wedding is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: reasonably satisfying but hardly adventurous.

Yet the performances all hit the spot. Particularly Tapsell’s, whose presence is a combination of likable and headstrong. And Blair’s direction demonstrates significant comedic flair – there are many laugh-out-loud moments – even if the script’s scruffy elements cramp his style a little.

The picturesque locations certainly don’t hurt. Nor, for that matter, does the aforementioned airport scene. If film-makers simply must keep this trope alive, it’s best to follow Blair and co’s lead: do it quick and don’t make it too much of a focus.

• Top End Wedding will be released in Australia on 2 May


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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