We of the Never Never Review

Elsey Station, Northern Territory, Australia, 1901. Aeneas Gunn (Aeneas Gunn), Master of the cattle station, brings his new wife Jeannie (Angela Punch McGregor) to live with him. At first Jeannie is out of place in this aggressively male world, but she soon demonstrates her worth to the station hands. Meanwhile, Jeannie befriends the Aboriginals who live around the station…

The real Jeannie (or “Mrs Aeneas Gunn” as she bylined herself) wrote of her experiences in a book, We of the Never Never. The title epitomises the attraction of the landscape for her and everyone else: once there, you never never want to leave. Peter Schreck’s film adaptation subtly changes the material. Aeneas’s attitude to the Aboriginals was a paternalistic one common at the time: they were like children and needed someone to lead them. That, while certainly true to the time when the film was set, would have been deeply politically incorrect (to use a term not devised in 1982) to contemporary audiences. So the film becomes a study in prejudice: Jeannie overcomes prejudice against her as a woman, and sets out to combat prejudice against the Aboriginals.

In 1982, We of the Never Never was nominated for six Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards. It won just the one, deservedly for the Gary Hansen’s cinematography. (Angela Punch McGregory lost Best Actress to Noni Hazlehurst for Monkey Grip, while Best Film went to Paul Cox’s Lonely Hearts.) It was given an arthouse cinema release in the UK. However, it doesn’t seem to be a film that has lasted the course, nearly a quarter of a century later.

By the early 1980s, the Australian New Wave had well and truly broken: local cinema was distributed worldwide, and many of the leading talent on both sides of the camera were beginning to work in Hollywood. Igor Auzins wasn’t really one of those: aside from TV work he’d made just one previous feature, the distinctly underwhelming High Rolling, which is most notable for introducing Judy Davis to the cinema. If you listen to younger audiences and filmmakers – and no-one knocks their local cinema more than the Australians do, though the British could certainly give them a run for their money – then We of the Never Never is the type of film that began to typify Australian cinema and which they reacted against. It’s a historical piece based on an acknowledged literary classic, stunning to look at, impeccably acted, and just a little bit dull, sluggish and lacking in dramatic impact…not to mention very long at two and a quarter hours. It’s not too much of a stretch to call it a “heritage” picture, selling an image of Australia in much the same way as Merchant Ivory’s imitators did around the same time in England. In fact, if you like Merchant Ivory then We of the Never Never will be right up your street.

That’s not to say that this is a bad film – far from it. But it’s a bland one: Auzins’s direction lacks urgency and relies too much on Hansen’s camerawork and Peter Best’s score to drive the film along. With his work here – just as spectacular with intimate scenes as with wide vistas – Hansen looked like another of the great Australian DPs in the making. His death in a helicopter crash eight months after the film wrapped was a terrible loss to the profession. As for Auzins, he went on to make The Coolangatta Gold, a sports movie set at the Gold Coast Triaquathon. Released in 1984, it was an expensive film that was a critical and commercial bomb, though it does have its defenders. It seems to have derailed Auzins’s career as it’s his most recent credit on the IMDB.

Angela Punch (she added the “McGregor” when she married her agent) was, and is, a distinguished actress on the Australian stage, television as well as cinema. After a disastrous flirtation with Hollywood in the shape of Michael Ritchie’s The Island, this was the first of two attempts in the 1980s to turn her into a leading lady. As with Annie’s Coming Out two years later, there’s nothing wrong with her performance here – she received AFI nominations for both, winning for the later film – but somehow the cinema screen doesn’t take to her. She’s perhaps much better suited to character parts rather than leads. Arthur Dignam and the rest of the cast give very solid performances, but it’s Punch McGregor’s show. As with the performance, so the film: it’s no doubt put together with considerable care and attention, the ingredients are right but somehow it never really sparks into life.

We of the Never Never sits oddly in new British DVD label Infinity Arthouse’s catalogue. Up to now most of their releases have been of Italian films, notably several by Fellini. If they are intending to release more “classic” Australian films then I will certainly not be objecting. This DVD is encoded for all regions.

One criticism of previous Infinity Arthouse DVDs on this site was the lack of anamorphic transfers. Well, I’m glad to say that that is one thing they’ve got right this time, on the first Scope film they have released: it’s an anamorphic transfer in a ratio of 2.40:1. We of the Never Never was released in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment in their “Oz Classics” line (also an all-regions disc). There wasn’t much wrong with that transfer, but this is if anything slightly better: for one thing, it’s removed the scratches and spots that appear as the film fades up from black to its opening scene. The colours are very vibrant – look at the deep blue of the river during the helicopter shot that comprises the opening credits – but the transfer does just as well in night-time scenes lit by firelight. There's some grain - as there is in almost any Australian film of this era, due to the filmstock used at the time - but it's not obtrusive.

The soundtrack is the original mono. I found I had to turn this up quite high as some of the dialogue is rather low in the mix, but otherwise this sounds fine. Regrettably Infinity Arthouse have made a common mistake of distributors who primarily deal with foreign films: English-language films need subtitles too, and they aren’t present here. There are fourteen chapter stops.

The main extra is the theatrical trailer (3:37). This is in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic, but the picture has actually been squeezed. The remaining extras are text-based. “Film background” reads like three pages of production notes from a press kit, although it has been updated, for example listing The Proposition as one of Tommy Lewis’s credits. Next up is a two-page biography of Angela Punch McGregor, which contains one factual error: she has indeed won three AFI Awards, but not all as Best Actress. Her win in 1978 for Newsfront was in the Supporting category. (She won Best Actress in the same year, for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.) Finally, there are five pages of critical quotes, all from British sources apart from Variety. Philip French of The Observer thought We of the Never Never far superior to the thematically similar My Brilliant Career - I wonder if he still thinks that?

As far as extras go, the Umbrella edition is the clear winner. As well as the trailer, it contains a twenty-five minute interview featurette with the principal cast and crew, and a 1974 “Walkabout Documentary”, a twenty-seven-minuter exploring ethnologist C.P Mountfords 1940 and 1942 expeditions into Central Australia to film Aboriginal life.

Although I’m not especially a fan of the film, the DVD of We of the Never Never is certainly a improvement by Infinity Arthouse on their previous releases, so let’s hope this continues.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:52:04

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