London Australian Film Festival: Storm Boy Review
In the 1950s. Storm Boy (Finn Little) lives with his father Hideaway Tom (Jai Courtney) in the Coorong, a largely uninhabited part of the South Australia coastline. One day he finds a nest of three pelican chicks, their mother having been shot by hunters. With the help of the local aborigine Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), Tom raises the chicks as his own, which he names Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and Mr Percival. When they have grown, Storm Boy returns them to their breeding ground, but soon afterwards Mr Percival returns...
Colin Thiele’s children’s book Storm Boy (which this film calls a novella – it’s just about long enough for that, certainly not long enough to be a novel) was a bestseller when first published in 1964. It has been adapted before – the 1976 film version, directed by Henri Safran was a big hit in Australia and went on to win that year’s Australian Film Institute Award (now the AACTA Award) for Best Film. (In the UK, it bypassed a cinema release but had its television premiere on BBC2 on Christmas Day 1977.) Remakes have been part of Australia’s cinema for a very long time, as they have in other countries, but now, forty-plus years on, many of the classics of the 1970s are ripe for redoing as new feature films or television miniseries. Hence this new Storm Boy, which is not just a remake but its own sequel as well.
This new version, written by Justin Monjo and directed by Shawn Seet, embeds Thiele’s story as a series of flashbacks. For a framing story, we move to the present day and Adelaide and a grown-up Storm Boy, Mike Kingley (Geoffrey Rush), now emeritus in the company run by his son-in-law Malcolm (Erik Thomson). The company is proposing to lease land in a remote region of Western Australia to a mining company. Malcolm’s teenage daughter Maddy (Morgana Davies), environmentally aware, is appalled by the proposal. Mike and Maddy form a bond, and he tells her the story of his bond with his pelicans, in particular Mr Percival. The film counterpoints the father-son narrative of the original story and film with a grandfather-granddaughter narrative here. Both have in common that they lost their mothers at a young age.
The 1976 film was never the cutting-edge of Australian cinema of the 1970s, but there’s no denying its popular appeal and emotional power. (A recent recipient of a 4K digital restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, it’s available on Blu-ray in that country, with the 1978 follow-up film Blue Fin, also from a Thiele story, as an extra.) While it’s inevitable that the story remains a period piece – it would be a different story completely with the presence of mobile phones and social media – this new film’s framing narrative is a respectful updating. The original Fingerbone Bill, David Gulpilil, turns up briefly as this film’s rather older Fingerbone’s father. Bruce Young’s widescreen digital cinematography is fine, though I’d give Geoff Burton’s 35mm work on the original the edge. Lumps in throats and things in eyes will be evoked at the places that they should be, and the storm-at-sea climax is suitably tense. This Storm Boy is solid family entertainment, a new version of a story that simply works.
Storm Boy showed at the London Australian Film Festival. Further UK distribution is to be confirmed.