Simon Robinson (Nick Tate) arrives in the seaside village of Bannings Beach to take up a job as schoolteacher. He finds that Peter Flynn, his predecessor, has vanished mysteriously and the locals, with the exception of his landlady Betty (Geraldine Turner) are less than welcoming. At the school, he comes to know ten-year-old Sally Abbott (Michelle Jarman). After an accident when Sally breaks her leg, Simon drives her back to her home, a remote house called Summerfield on an island joined to the mainland by a causeway. There he meets Sally’s mother Jenny (Elizabeth Alexander) and Jenny’s brother David (John Waters). Simon is attracted to Jenny, but this is not reciprocated. Despite their cordiality, Simon senses something is amiss at Summerfield and he is determined to find out what…
And of course I’m not going to tell you. Summerfield was written by Cliff Green, who had previously written Picnic at Hanging Rock. Like the earlier film it centres on a mystery, but unlike it, it does solve it. In fact there are two mysteries, even though the one about Peter Flynn’s disappearance turns out to be a red herring. (It is resolved, however, in an ironic final scene.) At first, though, it is central, and we are led to believe that maybe he met a nasty end at the hands of the schoolchildren. We first see them pretending to hang one of their number, to Simon’s alarm. As for the second, more central, mystery at the heart of Summerfield, it has been criticised for being too easy to guess, something that producer Patricia Lovell disputes in the featurette included on this disc. I’m not in a position to comment. Although I hadn’t seen the film before watching this DVD (it has turned up on British television several times but somehow I always managed to miss it), I did know the big plot revelation – the price for having read quite a bit about Australian cinema – and I did notice the hints and clues that Green and director Ken Hannam drop along the way. So it’s over to you on that one.
Summerfield is a slow-burning film, possibly a little too much so for its own good. Like Picnic it’s dependent on its atmosphere, evoked by Mike Molloy’s photography of the Australian landscape, aided by some strong acting, Bruce Smeaton’s score and Ken Hannam’s direction. Nick Tate along with Mike Molloy and Ken Hannam, were all Australians who had worked extensively in Britain. Tate had done a lot of TV work (and is probably best known nowadays for his role in Space: 1999) and had recently returned to his home country to make The Devil’s Playground. Molloy had been a camera operator, working for Nicolas Roeg and John Alcott/Stanley Kubrick amongst others, before recently moving up to become a director of photography.
Hannam had also worked in British television since the 1960s. His first feature film in Australia, Sunday Too Far Away had, despite a fraught production (including re-editing by the producer), been a triumph. It remains one of the classics of 1970s Australian cinema, and contains a defining Jack Thompson performance. Break of Day, with British actress Sara Kestelman in the lead, was made two years later. As with Summerfield it was written by Cliff Green and produced by Patricia Lovell. A period piece, it had a respectable run in Melbourne but flopped in Sydney and with a few exceptions reviewers savaged it. (It also has the distinction of being the first Australian film to be shown on Qantas flights.) It has not yet had a DVD release (and Sunday is long overdue a decent one), nor did it have a British cinema release or TV showing: I have not seen it. However, the combination of box office failure and critical mauling damaged Hannam’s confidence as he began work on Summerfield which he found by all accounts a fraught experience.
After the film was made Hannam spoke about his bad experiences to the press, souring his relationship with Patricia Lovell. He later took out an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald to apologise. But the damage was done. The critics disparaged the film and it failed at the box office. It doesn’t appear to have had a British cinema release, but did turn up on television in the Australian seasons BBC2 used to run in the 70s and early 80s, and which were my introduction to the country’s cinema. The late Alexander Walker was a fan of the film, and considered it possibly the best Australian film of the 1970s – quite a claim when you consider the competition. I’m not sure I would go that far, though.
Summerfield is certainly flawed. Along with what I’ve already mentioned, its violent climax doesn’t ring true. But it seems to have lasted the years quite well. You can’t fault the performances. Tate does well in a generally thankless role in this kind of film: the hapless mystery solver who finds himself in deeper than he thought. Elizabeth Alexander has proven to be an underused actress: she went on to leads in The Journalist and The Killing of Angel Street but has since done most of her work on television. John Waters, a television star and something of a sex symbol at the time, manages to do quite a bit with an underwritten part that requires him to hang around in the background of many scenes, though there are engaging supporting performances from Charles “Bud” Tingwell and Geraldine Turner. A word for young Michelle Jarman, who gives the role of Sally a rather spooky, otherworldly quality. This is one of the best child’s performances in any Australian film I’ve seen - it’s up there with Rebecca Smart, a decade later in Celia - and it’s a pity that she hasn’t continued acting. (She had appeared alongside Waters in Rush on television, and went on to appear in The Journalist with Elizabeth Alexander, but that’s it.) One indicator of changing times is that nowadays the relationship between this teacher and this pupil might be seen as verging on the inappropriate.
But it’s the atmosphere that sticks in the mind.
Summerfield is released by Umbrella Entertainment as part of their long list of Oz Classics. As with almost all of them, the disc is encoded for all regions.
There appears to be no standard ratio for 70s Australian films: I’ve seen and reviewed examples in Academy Ratio, 1.75:1, 1.85:1, not to mention Scope. Summerfield is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced. Ken Hannam died in 2004 and Mike Molloy doesn’t appear to have any input into this DVD, but I can only assume this is correct. The colours are strong, often tending towards orange in the skin tones – possibly oversaturated, but as I haven’t seen a cinema print of this film I can’t say for definite. Some scenes are a little soft and there’s noticeable grain – but then again the Eastmancolor stock used in many Australian films does look quite grainy nowadays. There are occasional scratches and speckles, particularly near the beginning of the film, and some minor colour shifts.
The soundtrack is the original mono and little need be said: dialogue is clear and Bruce Smeaton’s score sounds as it should. Umbrella have a regrettable policy of not providing hard-of-hearing subtitles, and this disc is no exception.
There is no commentary on this DVD, but this is made up for by a good specially-made documentary, something Umbrella specialise in for their Oz Classics line. “Secrets of Summerfield” (48:35) follows the usual structure of such things, taking the film chronologically from inception via production, a look at each principal cast member, then on its release and reception. The interviewees are Patricia Lovell (quite luvvyish), Cliff Green, Bruce Smeaton, Nick Tate, Elizabeth Alexander and John Waters. They are much more frank than many would be in a making-of featurette, and are open about the problems Ken Hannam had on set and his criticism of the film afterwards, though generally being very appreciative of his work. This featurette begins with a prominent warning that it should not be watched before the main feature – rightly so, as it contains major plot spoilers.
The second featurette, “A Shattered Silence” (22:58) was made at the time of production, and also features Lovell, Tate, Alexander and Waters. It also features an interview with Ken Hannam, who is unavoidably otherwise absent from the extras on this disc. Shot on 16mm, there are a few signs of print damage. This featurette is, like the main feature, presented in anamorphic 1.66:1.
The extras are concluded by a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer (2:46). Presented wider than the feature (anamorphic 1.78:1) this is noticeably scratched. It presents the film as more of a thriller than it actually is. The disc also features four trailers for other Umbrella releases: Roadgames, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Long Weekend and The Cars That Ate Paris/The Plumber.
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