Lucky Country Review
”For this to me is what New Australia means, to the landless, the homeless, the wifeless, the childless, to those whose hearts are sick and sore, to those who long to be manly, to be true, to be what men should be.” - William Lane
Australia, 1902. The Australian Federation is a year old. Twelve-year-old Tom (Toby Wallace) lives with his father Nat (Aden Young) and older sister Sarah (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence) in a cabin in the bush. Nat took them there in an urge to farm the land...but they are rapidly failing and Nat seems to be losing his sanity. Then three men arrive, led by Henry (Pip Miller), soldiers returning from the Boer War. Then one of them reveals that gold may be found nearby...
Antipodean westerns, for that is what Lucky Country effectively is, are hardly thick on the ground. Probably the most notable recent example is The Proposition. But this film, resourcefully shot on a low budget, does live up to that comparison. As written by Andy Cox and directed by Kriv Stenders, Lucky Country ably builds up tension slowly but surely until the film’s halfway mark, when a convincingly shambolic act of violence sparks off the rest of the story.
Lucky Country benefits from a very strong cast. Pip Miller gives his role more dimensions than many films would give their villain: an equable surface covering considerable ruthlessness. Aden Young convincingly delineates a man slowly unravelling – not just mentally but physically too, in the film’s latter stages. But the film belongs to its two youngest actors, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence and Toby Wallace, both the ages of their characters, who cope admirably with two quite demanding roles. Toby Wallace in particular has to carry much of the film himself.
For what was a very spare budget – considering that this is a historical piece shot entirely on location – the film is very well made. Lisa Stonham's production design is impressive – that’s a real cabin they’re shooting in, not a studio set. Jules O'Loughlin’s cinematography (originated in Super 16mm, though not so you’d notice) adds considerably to the atmosphere.
As a genre piece – a combination of western and suspense thriller - Lucky Country works just fine. However, there are signs that Cox and director Kriv Stenders are reaching for something a little higher and deeper. The film begins with Tom reading out William Lane’s definition of Australianness (quoted above), which he repeats at a key moment late on. However, I didn’t think the film developed this theme enough. The film stays at one level, but that level is a very good one – just not quite an excellent one.
Lucky Country was overlooked at the 2009 AFI Awards. At the time of writing, it is due to have a showing at the Barbican's (London) annual Australian Film Festival in March 2010, but other than that I'm not aware of amy plans for a British release. This was Kriv Stenders's fourth feature: I will seek out his earlier films, The Illustrated Family Doctor, Blacktown amd Boxing Day.
Lucky Country is released by Madman as a two-disc set, a DVD-9 and a DVD-5, both encoded for Region 4 only.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.85:1. Kriv Stenders goes into some detail in the commentary why he chose that ratio instead of 2.35:1, one reason being his decision to shoot much of the film handheld. (Though not to the extent where some of the audience is liable to become seasick.) The film was shot in Super 16mm, and if you look closely the transfer is a little softer than that of a 35mm-originated film might be.
Two soundtracks are available, in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround). There is quite a few examples of directional sound in the film, such as the barking dogs early on, and the subwoofer adds to the impacts of gunshots. The 5.1 track would be the track of choice if you can play it, but the Dolby Surround (which is mixed louder) is quite acceptable. Unfortunately there are no subtitles available.
The commentary begins with Kriv Stenders announcing that he and his fellow speakers (producer Kristian Moliere and writer Andy Cox) are sharing a bottle of Pinot Grigio – and we hear the clink of glasses. Tongues may have indeed been loosened and there is a lot of hilarity in this commentary, which is all the same a fairly technical chat. Stenders dominates, but the other two do get to have their say.
Disc One is rounded off by the theatrical trailer (2:05) and the usual Madman Propaganda: trailers for Balibo, My Year Without Sex, Last Ride and Wake in Fright.
Disc Two begins with a set of deleted scenes, which come with an optional commentary. They are “Alternative Opening” (10:41), “Tom and Nat – The Boer War” (1:17), “Carver's Story” (3:56), “Jimmy and Sarah – Making Soap” (00:39), “The Pig Hunt” (00:47) and “the Last Supper” (1:18). All are timecoded, and there is a Play All option. Stenders discusses the reasons for each deletion in some detail and is frank about occasions when he fucked up (his phrase).
Next up is a making-of featurette (08:43). As you can see from the length this isn't very informative – obvious EPK material. Also included are video diaries of the production (36:15) and eleven webisodes (8:04), which give a little more behind-the-scenes details, also highlighting such little-heralded roles as that of the armourer and also the difficulties of finding suitable real or fake dead animals in a state (South Australia) where it's illegal to kill them yourself.
Interviews follow with Kriv Stenders (10:01), Andy Cox (3:59), Aden Young (4:57, sporting some gory makeup), Kristian Moliere (5:02) – who displays an unfortunate tendency to knock other Australian period films to promote his own - and Lisa Stonham (2:32). Each of them is in the usual format of a text question followed by the videod answer, and there is a Play All option here too. Finally, there is more Madman Propaganda: Ten Canoes, Romulus, My Father, The Bank and Look Both Ways.