Australia Day is a gruelling journey through the streets of Brisbane and subterranean national prejudices, but it does have a lot of heart and features some excellent performances.
Director Kriv Stenders handled this sometimes scorching ensemble drama amid a flurry of other projects (the Red Dog sequel, his Go-Betweens doco, the Wake In Fright miniseries), and it certainly paints an unflattering but awfully real view of contemporary Australia, suggesting that perhaps he’s doing penance for those oh-so-nice Red Dogs.
A stinking hot Australia Day (“our most controversial national holiday”) dawns in Brisbane and three characters are introduced running for their lives: the Chinese Lan Chang (Jenny Wu); young Sami Ghaznavi (Elias Anton); and indigenous teen April Tucker (Miah Madden). A grim and ambitious screenplay by Stephen M. Irwin then shows how their plights connect (sometimes without them realising it) in a cinematic fashion that might recall the Oscar-winning Crash or even Robert Altman in a dark mood.
Lan escapes her pursuer by jumping into a car with a stranger named Terry Friedman (Bryan Brown, straight off the Red Dog sequel and never better), a man with problems of his own who discovers that she’s mixed up with some very bad people and “paying off travel debts”. His decision to dangerously do the right thing and help her is mirrored by Sonya Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens, formerly one of The Sapphires), who’s chasing April and might be the only one who properly understands what happened at the site of a homicide.
Sami’s situation is even more dire, as he’s grabbed by a bunch of young, sweaty blokes led by scary Dean Patterson (Sean Keenan), who thinks Sami raped his sister Chloe (Isabelle Cornish, Abbie’s sister). Tied to a chair and beaten by these seriously white lads, the script features vicious racist taunts guaranteed to make the viewer cringe, and a sense of dread permeates this whole plot thread, with Keenan almost too good as the frightening yet pathetic Dean.
Not exactly an easy watch and surely Kriv’s most troubling effort, this sidesteps any fears of soapboxing due to its performances, from the old-timers (Brown, Chris Haywood as a doctor in one scene and Ernie Dingo briefly as Sonya’s Dad) to the younger, unfamiliar cast members, especially Keenan, Wu (whose character speaks almost no English) and Anton, so expert in showing silent terror. Will it add to the growing debate about the need to change the date of Australia Day? Maybe, if audiences dare to actually get out there and see it.
Rated MA. Australia Day is in cinemas now