Petersen Review

Tony Petersen (Jack Thompson) is a former star footballer now working as an electrician. He’s married to Susie (Jacki Weaver) and they have two young daughters. In an effort to improve himself, Petersen is in his second year of a literature degree course at the local University. His tutor is the pompous Charles Kent (Arthur Dignam) who doesn’t know that Petersen is having an affair with his wife Trish (Wendy Hughes), who taught Petersen the previous year…

When Hexagon Productions was set up, their first production was to be a screenplay known then as either Sittin’ or Campus. It was the first script written directly for the screen by David Williamson, who had previously written Stork. However, due to other commitments, this project was delayed a year and Tim Burstall made Alvin Purple in the meantime. Petersen was Jack Thompson’s first leading role in a feature, after appearing in a supporting role in Wake in Fright (known outside Australia as Outback) and playing a Petersen prototype in “The Family Man”, the Williamson-scripted, David Baker-directed episode of the four-part feature Libido. Helen Morse and Wendy Hughes also made their debuts in this film, though both of them had television experience and in Hughes’s case stage as well.

Petersen’s advertising campaign emphasised the film’s sexual content, which may have paid off at the box office (the film turned a profit) but may also have coloured the local critics’ view of it. Many of them had not forgiven Burstall for Alvin Purple and they gave Petersen a rough ride. However, Petersen is by no means another Alvin-type sex comedy. David Williamson’s dialogue is customarily sharp and often funny, but Petersen is at heart a serious film, a character study and a downbeat one. It tackles class divisions in Australian society head on: Petersen tries and fails to rise above his station and his working-class birds and booze culture, and the only connection possible with those socially above him is a sexual one. Petersen was released in British cinemas after BBFC cuts, though it has not had a video release and I have no memory of a TV screening. A version shortened by ten minutes appeared in the USA under the title ”Jock” Petersen.

Watching Petersen now, thirty years after it was made, is to go back to an entirely different cinematic world to today’s. The film’s sexual explicitness is in keeping with a drama that is genuinely adult. At a time when censorship barriers had broken down (the Australian R rating had been introduced in 1971), this is a film that makes good use of the licence newly available. Needless to say, it’s not for children or the easily offended, and some attitudes may strike some as distinctly un-PC nowadays. Also, in the character of Petersen himself, the film has a moral complexity and ambiguity you see less often today. Petersen is an instantly recognisable Aussie type: as Thompson points out, Foley in Sunday Too Far Away is the same man, a generation earlier. He’s “no Einstein” according to his own father, but he tries to improve his education. He’s devoted to his two daughters but thinks nothing of being unfaithful to his wife. (You may wonder how Susie never gets to hear about it – particularly after he has public sex with fellow student Moira (Belinda Giblin) as the result of a dare. But watch her face when he’s interrupted with his friend’s wife on a weekend away: you sense she knows quite well what he’s capable of, even if she chooses to ignore it. Susie calls herself “stupid” and Jacki Weaver plays her with her voice in a higher register than normal, but you sense there’s more to her than first appears.) Petersen can also be a violent man. That’s admirable when he fights off some bikies who gatecrash a student’s birthday party, less so when at a climactic moment he commits rape, his only, inarticulate, response to the way he has been used. Yet Thompson has a charisma that goes a long way towards making you want to watch him, even if you don’t always approve of what he does.

Petersen has its dated aspects, notably Petersen and Trish’s nude rompings in the surf, complete with freeze-frames, which look alarmingly like the cigarette commercials that Trish at one point accuses Elvira Madigan of resembling. But it’s strongly directed by Burstall, sharply written by Williamson, has a defining Jack Thompson lead role backed up by a first-rate supporting cast. It’s the best film of the eight in the Hexagon box set, and quite possibly stands as the finest of Burstall’s career.

Petersen is released as part of the 70s Australian Cinema Classics box set, and is not as yet available separately. The DVD is encoded for Region 4 only.

The DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 1.78:1, which looks to be the intended one or near enough – that would be most likely 1.85:1 in cinemas. The colours of Robin Copping’s photography are well rendered, though shadow detail is lacking in some scenes. Grain is noticeable but acceptable. A lot of this is down to the original film stock, which tends to look grainier than contemporary film. There are some dirt and minor scratches, and reel change markings showing up every so often.

Again the soundtrack options are the original mono and a 5.1 remix. The latter seems at a lower volume than the mono mix. Since it’s effectively mono (some left and right in Peter Best’s music score) with no surround or subwoofer usage, you have to wonder why they bothered. There's an odd change of ambience at the 89-minute point while Wendy Hughes is speaking, possibly caused by her dialogue being relooped. Subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras. There are sixteen chapter stops.

Unlike the earlier DVDs in the Hexagon collection, there are no short films or featurettes on this disc. The main extra is a series of interviews, presented in 4:3 and runs 21:57. Interviewees this time are Alan Finney, David Williamson, Robin Copping, Wendy Hughes, Jack Thompson and Jacki Weaver. Tim Burstall died in April 2004, during the production of this box set, which may explain his absence here. Even without him (the ebullient Alan Finney, as a Hexagon executive, more or less stands in for Burstall), the interviewees cover a lot of ground, with Thompson in particular giving a lot of background to his character. Williamson and others defend the controversial rape scene and Copping describes its shooting on a closed set. Williamson also defends the violence in the film: apparently gatecrashing parties was a popular bikie pastime back then and some people were killed as a result.

Next up is the theatrical trailer, a surprisingly lengthy (3:13) explicit effort in terms of sexual content and language. It’s presented in 4:3 and is much more grainy and contrasty than the main feature with some very bilious colours. A biography and filmography of Tim Burstall is extensive, but it appears on all the DVDs in this box set. On this disc you can also find filmographies (generally derived from the IMDB) of Jack Thompson, Wendy Hughes, Jacki Weaver, David Williamson, Robin Copping, editor and Hexagon boardmember David Bilcock and Alan Finney. Finally, there’s a stills gallery which self-navigates while the film’s music score plays. It’s the usual assortment of production pictures and poster artwork, and runs 1:51.

Petersen is a key Australian film of the 1970s. It’s only available as part of the box set at present, but that’s well worth getting in any case. The picture and sound are as good as could be expected short of a complete digital remastering. Although there are fewer extras than on other discs in the set, they are still worthwhile.

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Last updated: 30/05/2018 22:48:07

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