The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Review
In memory of Tom E. Lewis (25 August 1958 – 11 May 2018)
Australia, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a half-caste Aboriginal, is brought up by the Reverend Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife as white. Yet everywhere he goes, Jimmie is made aware of the colour of his skin – not as dark as other “blackfellas” like his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds), but still not white, still other. He marries a white woman, Gilda (Angela Punch), and they have a child. But eventually intolerance becomes too much for Jimmie and he explodes into violence…
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is based on Thomas Keneally's 1972 novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (Keneally, born in 1935, was shortlisted two more times before winning the Booker in 1982 for Schindler's Ark, better known now under its US title which was also that of the film version, Schindler's List.) The novel was inspired by a true story, that of Jimmie Governor, who in 1900 went on the run after the murders of our members of the Mawbey family and their boarder at Breelong, New South Wales. In more recent interviews, Keneally has suggested that he would now approach this subject matter somewhat more cautiously, as a white man writing about Aboriginal characters. However, there's a sense of that in the novel, which while it does take us into Jimmie's thoughts in the third person, as well as Mort's and those of several other characters, it has an omniscient narrative rather than one limited to the perspective of the characters. We see them from the outside in, rather than the other way round, so there is a sense of an external narrator, who at one point compares the coverage of the killings and pursuit with the way modern media (that is, one circa 1970) would do. The real events, novel and film all take place as Australia prepares to become a federation, which it did in 1901, and there's a clear sense that both the novel and the film suggest that Australia is a country built on the suppression, often violent suppression, of its indigenous peoples. There's a parallel in the then-current Boer War which one character (an early role for Bryan Brown) says gives the British a licence to “shoot the buggers”. Jimmie's revenge is as much against the white men's “property” (women, children) as against the men, and Schepisi emphasises this in the way he shoots the killings: tightly edited (so you see less than you think you did) and including crockery being smashed, eggs being broken, and so on.
Fred Schepisi had known Keneally for some time. Keneally had written the script for “The Priest”, Schepisi's segment of the portmanteau film Libido. He had played a significant supporting role in the director’s debut feature, The Devil’s Playground. Schepisi adapted the novel for the screen, and financed much of the production – at $1.2 million, a very expensive one for Australia at the time – via his commercials company, The Film House, plus any rich benefactor he could find. Further financing came from the Australian Film Commission and the Victorian Film Commission. For the two lead roles of the Blacksmith brothers, Schepisi and his then wife Rhonda (the film’s casting director) picked two unknowns. They found Tommy Lewis at an airport. The film was shot largely on location in rural areas of New South Wales, with the jail scenes at Melbourne (now a museum and the place where Ned Kelly was hanged).
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a troubling film, as it should be – it seeks to understand a young man who is provoked into committing axe murder. That scene, filmed in one handheld take (with close shots edited in), is harrowing to watch. Yet it’s a powerful one, due to Schepisi’s assured handling of the material. In the second half, as Jimmie and Mort go on the run, the forces of the law at their heels, it becomes something of a Down Under western. In between, Schepisi cuts in short scenes showing public reaction to the case, particularly in scenes between a local butcher (Ray Meagher) and his customer (Arthur Dignam), conversations which take on a further resonance when we discover that the butcher has a sideline as the public executioner, the process of serving meat and hanging a person being two trades he has learned to carry out to his best ability. Schepisi took this device further in Evil Angels (known overseas as A Cry in the Dark). Schepisi and Baker shot the film in Scope, and took to the process so readily that every single cinema feature Schepisi has made since, all but Last Orders shot by Baker, have been in the wider format. In all of Schepisi's films, the landscape plays a vital part, whether that's a largely exterior landscape as here, or one made of up the interiors of buildings, in a film like Plenty, say. Baker and Schepisi use long and short lenses to make the Aboriginal characters to seem part of the landscape (which is emphasised by close-ups of plants and animals) and the white characters at odds with it. Time and again, they use doors and décor to create a frame within the frame to show how circumscribed Jimmie's existence is: as he has dinner with the Nevilles, or even as he marries Gilda. The last shot of the film sees Jimmie in prison, through the eyehole in the cell door, and as that eyehole is shut the film ends.
When an unknown actor takes a lead role, it’s hard to say how much his performance depends on the director. In Freddy Reynolds’s case, that’s still moot, as he has not made another film. However, Tommy Lewis (later billed as Tom E. Lewis, his traditional name being Barlang Lewis) did continue to act. He was inexplicably overlooked for a Best Actor nomination at that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards. Behind his two leads, Schepisi assembled a remarkable cast featuring many of the leading Australian character actors of the day, and smaller roles for newer actors such as Bryan Brown (already mentioned) and John Jarratt. Also appearing, as a baby, is Schepisi's daughter Alexandra, around a year old. She has continued to act as an adult, and Schepisi directed her again in The Eye of the Storm. Thomas Keneally appears as a cook.
The film became the first Australian film to play in competition at Cannes since Wake in Fright in 1971. Critical reaction was strong, though there was criticism of the film's violence, particularly in Australia. The OFLC (the Australian censorship body) gave the film a R certificate, restricting it to the over-eighteens, which was reduced to the advisory M on appeal, a rating it still holds. However, one state, Queensland, maintained the R for its audiences. Even with the less restrictive rating, Jimmie Blacksmith was a box-office disappointment. Evidently the Australian public found the film's subject matter uncomfortable, and Schepisi found that they would not flock to a film which pointed a finger at their country's treatment of its outsiders, something he found again with Evil Angels. As some of his own money had gone into the production, Schepisi found himself in debt and as the next decade began was working overseas, as were several of the other directors who had come to the fore in the 1970s. He has only returned to film in Australia twice since so far, with Evil Angels and The Eye of the Storm, based on the novel by the country's first and so far only Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Patrick White.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith picked up twelve nominations in the Australian Film Institute Awards (now the AACTA Awards) and won three: for Bruce Smeaton's score, for Ray Barrett as Best Supporting Actor and for Angela Punch for Best Actress. (She also won Best Supporting Actress the same year for Newsfront. Since then she has acted as Angela Punch McGregor.) Newsfront was the big winner in a very strong year for Australian cinema, with the other two Best Film nominees being John Duigan's Mouth to Mouth and Richard Franklin's Patrick, and other films not nominated in the top category included The Last Wave and The Getting of Wisdom.
In the UK, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was given an X certificate (eighteen and over) and had a cinema release in 1979. However, the film had some controversy when it was caught up in the video nasties panic. It was a “Section 3” title, not liable to be prosecuted but could be confiscated as “less obscene”. That may have contributed to its UK television premiere (the first time I saw the film), on Channel 4 on 16 May 1987, being very late at night, in fact starting in the early hours of the next morning, letterboxed to 1.66:1 (Scope films generally didn't get fully letterboxed on television then) with a content warning upfront. The film was been passed for (panned-and-scanned) VHS release at 18 six days later, and again at 18 in 1994. I suspect it might earn a 15 now, but it has not been resubmitted as there has been no UK DVD or Blu-ray release.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was previously released by Umbrella as a two-disc DVD (which I reviewed here), later reissued as a a single disc. This Blu-ray is encoded for all regions. The extras from the DVD have been brought forward, plus some new ones. It's worth mentioning that you can't return to the main menu from partway through the feature or any of the extras: you have to chapter-skip or fast-forward to the end. You can play the film with a 25-second introduction by Schepisi, shot at the same time as his part of the new interview with him and Ian Baker (see below).
This is the full-length theatrical cut of Jimmie Blacksmith, running 121:53 on this disc. After its initial release Schepisi shortened the film. By how much he did so varies according to your source, but looking at the BBFC site it would seem that the longer cut played British cinemas. It may be the case, though not confirmed, that a version of 108 minutes was released in the USA. The two British VHS releases ran 112:18 and 112:24. Assuming that PAL speed-up applies, that would equate to 117 minutes at cinema speed. That Channel 4 showing was, if memory serves, the shorter version, and the two-and-a-quarter-hour time slot would bear that out, given that it included commercial breaks. One of the sequences removed was the later one where Jimmie, Mort and the wounded teacher McCready (Peter Carroll, also AFI-nominated for his supporting role) hide behind a rock defaced by graffiti. This was historically accurate, and in the novel, but audiences had found the scene distracting. If 117 minutes is correct for the shorter version, then this scene might have been the only one which was removed. Come 2000, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith became one of the Kodak/Atlab Fifty, one of a half-century of major Australian films selected for restoration of their picture and soundtrack with new archive prints struck. Schepisi had clearly had second thoughts about his second thoughts as this restored print was of the full-length version and since then this is the only version which has been commercially available. I saw this archive print in 2013 in London.
The film was shot in 35mm with anamorphic lenses and the Blu-ray transfer is in the original ratio of 2.40:1. As a transfer it's certainly watchable, particularly in motion and particularly with close-ups, but there's no getting away from the fact that it's not as sharp as it could have been. Some softness and lack of definition is down to the source – it's par for the course with anamorphic-shot films as opposed to spherical-shot ones – but there's some edge enhancement in evidence.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0, and little need be said except that it is clear and well-balanced. Unlike the DVD, Umbrella have provided hard-of-hearing subtitles for this English-language film (with a few lines of intentionally untranslated Aboriginal languages). The subtitler seems to have had problems making out some of the dialogue, as we get “(mumbles)” on more than one occasion. (With a line spoken by Arthur Dignam's character at 96 minutes, the missing word is “Bathurst”, as in the town in New South Wales.) Near the end of the film, when the Reverend Neville is reading from the Book of Revelation, “I am Alpha and Omega” becomes “I am offering the meak [sic]”.
Fred Schepisi provides a commentary, carried forward from the DVD, which is very interesting, though again possibly a little dry for anyone not especially interested in the process of making a film or a director’s working methods. He is a somewhat hesitant speaker, saying “uhm” quite a lot, which is evident in all the extras in which he features.
New to this disc is what is a conversation with Fred Schepisi and Ian Baker (64:01), though it's actually two separate interviews to camera edited together. Again, this may be a little dry for general audiences, but is valuable if you are interested in filmmaking and in particular cinematography and how a director and a DP collaborate. Schepisi and Baker have one of the longest-running professional partnerships in current cinema, having worked together since he was originally hired as a runner at Schepisi's commercials house. This item has a prominent spoiler warning at the start, so don't watch it unless you've seen the film.
Also new to this disc is an extract (6:00) from Willesee at Seven, from June 1978. This television programme was presented by Mike Willesee (hence the title) and here he covers the Melbourne world premiere of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, taking initial reactions from those of the great and good who had just seen the film. Most of the dignitaries are now obscure, but also giving their opinion are Paul Hogan and television presenter and music producer Ian “Molly” Meldrum (captioned without his nickname – he was the subject of a television biopic miniseries in 2016).
The rest of the extras are carried forward from the DVD. “Celluloid Gypsies: Making Jimmie Blacksmith” (36:21), a making-of featurette. Schepisi takes the lead, describing how his friendship with Keneally allowed him to be given the rights to the novel, despite some competition. (Intriguing, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, writers of Don’t Look Now, were among them.) Inevitably there’s overlap with the commentary, of which this may be a preferred replacement for some people. Other interviewees are Tom Lewis, Ian Baker and editor Brian Kavanagh.
Lewis gets a solo spot in “The Chant of Tom Lewis” (25:33). The actor, looking very different from his youthful self, talks about his experiences of making the film, and how it affected him in later life as an Aborigine and as a family man. Like his character, he married a white woman and had a daughter. He is moving as he talks about his love for them, and how so many people he knew were lost to alcoholism and violence. If he hadn’t made Jimmie Blacksmith, he might have had a similar fate. He went on to a long career in other films, television and stage. Watching this again now for this review is a poignant experience, as I am writing this a few days after Lewis died of a heart attack, aged fifty-nine.
“Making Us Blacksmiths” (10:23) is a documentary from 1978, shot at the same time as the feature, in 35mm by Ian Baker, which describes how Lewis and Freddy Reynolds were cast. It’s interesting to see how different Schepisi looks in this. Rhonda Schepisi, otherwise absent from these extras (she died in 1995), makes an appearance here.
Next up is a Q&A session (34:05) at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival, following a screening of Jimmie Blacksmith. Geoffrey Rush hosts, and Schepisi also answers questions from the audience. Inevitably there's some overlap with the other extras, but Schepisi is on good form and a passionate advocate for films as cinema – think big, he says, as big as you are able.
Finally on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (14:28) and the film's theatrical trailer (2:20).