The Last Wave Review

Freak weather hits Australia, with hailstones falling in the Outback, and torrential rains drenching Sydney. Lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) has a recurring dream of an Aborigine holding out a stone to him. David takes on a case of a group of Aborigines accused of the ritual killing of one of their kind. One of the defendants, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil of Walkabout and Storm Boy, billed here as surname only). As David investigates further, he learns more about himself and the nature of the strange visions and dreams he has.

Peter Weir’s follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave is a mixed bag: a film where individual parts are so strong that you can almost overlook significant shortcomings in other areas. This film continues the mystical themes of Picnic, this time in a contemporary city setting. David, like many of Weir’s lead characters, is a man who learns to see into an alternative, larger reality than he did before, a breakthrough that’s not without his price. To his defendants, tribal Aborignes living in the tunnels under the city, David is a mulkurul: a visionary almost despite himself. Like Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now, he has a gift that he wasn’t aware of. Although unlike Sutherland’s character, he doesn’t reject this gift, with tragic consequences, his acceptance of it causes the break-up of his marriage to Annie (Olivia Hamnett), and puts at risk his career and even his life.

Heady, ambitious stuff, but a partial success. On the plus side is Weir’s compelling sense of place and a uncanny, numinous atmosphere. He’s helped no end by Russell Boyd’s camerawork, all blues, greys and browns in sharp contrast to the golden hues of Picnic. Some of the imagery, such as David’s visions of a submerged Sydney, will stay with you. By this time, partly due to the success of the earlier film, the American majors were taking notice of the new talent emerging in Australia. United Artists helped finance The Last Wave. The casting of Richard Chamberlain might have been a concession to the American market, as was the presence of Kirk Douglas in 1982’s The Man from Snowy River, a huge domestic hit. Much of the time Chamberlain has been a bland actor, content to get by on his good looks in undemanding material. But here he gives one of his best performances, helping to carry the film onwards while the narrative falters.

The Aborigine actors, led by Gulpilil and Nanjiwarra Amagula (a magistrate in real life), were consulted at every stage to ensure that their portrayal was both sensitive and accurate. (The Sydney tunnel-dwellers are fiction, though.) The film could be accused of sentimentality and white-liberal piety: is it more acceptable to put someone to death with a killing bone than with a gun or a knife? To be fair, the film does address this question, though leaves it unanswered. A more serious flaw is that, at this stage, Weir’s narrative skills weren’t at the same level as his cinematic ones. Or it may be that such mystical themes he pursues here simply can’t be contained within a traditional narrative structure. For whatever reason, the story falls apart before it’s over. (If you want to avoid a possible spoiler, please skip to the next paragraph.) The film’s ending is both too protracted and not long enough. If the ending is unsatisfying, it’s hard to think of one that might not be. The film’s ending is completely open-ended, as David is given a vision of the Last Wave of the title, which will destroy the world and make a new beginning. Is David dead? What happens now? We don’t know, and this time the lack of a narrative closure fails to work. Screenwriter David Williamson’s input to Weir’s next two features, Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, certainly gave the films a firmer structure than before, but moved Weir towards more realistic, sociopolitical themes. Weir’s mystical side only really reappeared with Fearless and maybe The Truman Show.

Criterion’s DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 16:9. As with Picnic, the film looks like it could be cropped to 1.85:1 (which would make sense given the US funding), but as with the earlier film, Weir clearly prefers less letterboxing for home viewing. There really isn’t much to say about the picture except that, as you’d expect from Criterion, there really isn’t much wrong with it, some minor aliasing apart. Some graininess in the darker scenes is no doubt due to the original materials. If the Last Wave seems particularly grainy, it always has done. Budgetary limitations prevented much in the way of special effects, and the Wave was eventually conjured up from surfing footage.

The Last Wave was released in cinemas with a mono soundtrack, as was the norm in 1977, certainly in Australia. As there’s no sound set-up on the menu, you might be forgiven (unless you’ve looked closely at the back cover) for thinking that that’s what you have on the DVD. In fact the disc defaults to a discreetly-mixed surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 track. But press your AUDIO button, and there’s a Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well. As with the similarly remixed track on Criterion’s Picnic DVD, Weir doesn’t go overboard with his directional effects. He uses the surround channels for wind and rain a lot, but it’s the subwoofer that makes most impression. Ominous bass rumbles add to the impact of certain scenes, in particular the ending. There are twenty-three chapters, twenty-four if you include Criterion’s trademark colour bars.

As with Picnic at Hanging Rock, this isn’t the most extras-heavy of Criterion’s discs. In the brochure is a short essay by Diane Jacobs, which disagrees with me about the ending. (Incidentally, she twice misspells the title of Fred Schepisi’s film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.) The theatrical trailer is the usual hodgepodge of clips from all parts of the film, its length (2:49) betraying that this must have been a difficult film to sell. Typical of Criterion to go that little bit further and remix the trailer’s soundtrack into Dolby Surround. Weir is interviewed in the other on-disc extra, running 10:46. (Like the trailer, it’s 16:9 anamorphic.) Looking back at this film after twenty-five years, he’s frank about its failings. Then again, there are parts of it he’s very proud of. In place of a commentary, this will certainly do. Perhaps a commentary would expain too much: although what is on screen isn’t quite enough, you certainly don’t want too much of it spelled out for you. In that contradiction lies the strange fascination of The Last Wave.

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