The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Review
Australia, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a half-caste Aboriginal, is brought up by the Reverend Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife as white. Yet everywhere he goes, Jimmie is made aware of the colour of his skin – not as dark as other “blackfellas” like his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds), but still not white, still other. He marries a white woman, Gilda (Angela Punch – her last film under this name, before she became Angela Punch McGregor), and they have a child. But eventually intolerance becomes too much for Jimmie and he explodes into violence…
Thomas Keneally’s novel, based on a true story was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Fred Schepisi had known Keneally for some time: the writer played a significant supporting role in the director’s debut feature, The Devil’s Playground. Schepisi adapted the novel for the screen, and financed much of the production – a very expensive one for Australia at the time – via his commercials company, The Film House, plus any rich benefactor he could find. Further financing came from the Australian Film Commission and the Victorian Film Commission. The cast was made up of many white character actors (not to mention Keneally in a small role). However, for the two lead roles of the Blacksmith brothers, Schepisi and his then wife Rhonda (the film’s casting director) picked two unknowns. They found Tommy Lewis at an airport.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a troubling film, as it should be – it seeks to understand a young man who is provoked into committing axe murder. That scene, filmed in one handheld take (with close shots edited in), is harrowing to watch. Yet it’s a powerful one, due to Schepisi’s assured handling of the material. In the second half, as Jimmie and Mort go on the run, the forces of the law at their heels, becomes something of a Down Under western. In between, Schepisi cuts in short scenes showing public reaction to the case, a device he took further in Evil Angels (known overseas as A Cry in the Dark). Schepisi and Baker shot the film in Scope, and took to the process so readily that every single cinema feature Schepisi has made since, all but Last Orders shot by Baker, have been in the wider format. (For those who like to know such things: every Schepisi film up to Mr. Baseball plus his reshoot of Fierce Creatures were shot with anamorphic lenses, while all the others have used Super 35.) While other directors’, such as John Carpenter, habitual use of Scope has been overrated, Schepisi’s has been much undersung. To see almost any of his films panned and scanned is to do them a disservice: he has used the wide screen for everything from epic-scaled historical pieces like this one, to small-scale domestic dramas and comedies. Baker’s work is stunning. A particularly subtle point is the way he and Schepisi use long and short lenses to make the Aboriginal characters to seem part of the landscape and the white characters at odds with it. Production and costume design are also first-rate.
When an unknown actor takes a lead role, it’s hard to say how much his performance depends on the director. In Freddy Reynolds’s case, that’s still moot, as he has not made another film. However, Tommy Lewis (usually known these days as Tom Lewis) has continued to act: he has a role in The Proposition, he should get a lot of credit for his acting, which holds the film together. He was inexplicably overlooked for a Best Actor nomination at that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards. Behind his two leads, Schepisi has assembled a remarkable cast featuring most of the leading Australian character actors of the day.
The film became the first Australian film to play in competition at Cannes since Wake in Fright (aka Outback) in 1971. Critical reaction was strong, but the Australian public clearly found the film’s subject matter uncomfortable, as Jimmie Blacksmith was a box office disappointment. An odd quirk of local censorship didn’t help: while the Australian censor gave the film the M rating it still holds, the state of Queensland raised this to an R, restricting the film to the over-eighteens. Out of twelve AFI nominations, the film won three: Bruce Smeaton for his score, Ray Barrett as Best Supporting Actor, and Angela Punch as Best Actress, which she doubled with Best Supporting Actress for her work in Newsfront. Noyce’s film was the big winner that year, beating Jimmie Blacksmith for Best Picture. As the next decade began, Schepisi was working overseas, and he has continued to do so, returning to his native country only once so far, to make Evil Angels.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is released by Umbrella Entertainment as a two-disc set, encoded for all regions. Disc One is dual-layered, disc Two is single.
This is the full-length theatrical cut of Jimmie Blacksmith, which runs 116: 54 with PAL speed-up (122 minutes at 24 fps). After the film’s release, Schepisi shortened the film. By how much he did so varies according to your source, but looking at the BBFC site it would seem that the longer cut played British cinemas, while the two VHS releases run 112 minutes (which may have PAL speed-up but may also be NTSC-to-PAL standards conversions. My one previous viewing, on Britain’s Channel 4 in the late 1980s, was (if memory serves) of the shorter cut. One of the sequences removed was the later one where Jimmie, Mort and the wounded teacher McCready (Peter Carroll, also AFI-nominated for his supporting role) hide behind a rock defaced by graffiti. This was historically accurate, but audiences had found the scene distracting.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 2,40:1 and is widescreen-enhanced. As with the same distributor’s simultaneous release of The Devil’s Playground, this is derived from a restored print held by the National Film and Sound Archive. Given that the film was shot with anamorphic lenses, it’s inevitable that the film looks a little soft in places, especially some of the dusty exteriors. But it’s a solid transfer, with good shadow detail and strong blacks, and I don’t doubt this is as good as this film is likely to look on a SD DVD.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and little need be said except that it is clear and well-balanced. Once again, Umbrella have not provided any subtitles.
Schepisi provides a commentary, which is very interesting, though again possibly a little dry for anyone not especially interested in the process of making a film or a director’s working methods.
Disc One is completed by the theatrical trailer, which is 2:20 and presented in anamorphic 2.40:1, and the usual “Umbrella Propaganda”: trailers for The Devil’s Playground, The Fringe Dwellers, We of the Never Never and Travelling North.
Disc Two begins with a featurette, “Celluloid Gypsies: Making Jimmie Blacksmith” (36:21). Schepisi takes the lead, describing how his friendship with Keneally allowed him to be given the rights, despite some competition. (Intriguing, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, writers of Don’t Look Now were among them.) Inevitably there’s overlap with the commentary, of which this may be a preferred replacement for some people. Other interviewees are Tom Lewis, Ian Baker and editor Brian Kavanagh.
Lewis gets a solo spot in “The Chant of Tom Lewis” (25:33). The actor, looking very different from his youthful self, talks about his experiences of making the film, and how it affected him in later life as an Aborigine and as a family man. Like his character, he married a white woman and now has a daughter. He is moving as he talks about his love for them, and how so many people he knew were lost to alcoholism and violence. If he hadn’t made Blacksmith, he might have had a similar fate.
“Making Us Blacksmiths” (10:23) is a documentary from 1978, which describes how Lewis and Freddy Reynolds were cast. It’s interesting to see how different Schepisi looks in this. His then-wife Rhonda, otherwise absent from this DVD, makes an appearance here.
Next up is a Q&A session at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival, following a screening of Jimmie Blacksmith. Geoffrey Rush hosts, and Schepisi also answers questions from the audience.
The extras are completed by a stills gallery.
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