Last Cab to Darwin Review
Broken Hill, New South Wales. Rex (Michael Caton) has lived there all his life. He works as a cab driver, living opposite Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) who he might have asked to marry years ago but never did. Then he finds out he has incurable stomach cancer. Learning that the Northern Territory has just legalised assisted dying, in a treatment pioneered by Dr Nicole Farmer (Jacki Weaver), he packs everything in and takes the long car trip to Darwin to die. But things don't quite work out the way he thought...
Last Cab to Darwin, based on Reg Cribb's stage play, ably negotiates its tricky subject matter with considerable humour and warmth. Inspired by a true story, the play was first staged in 2003 and Cribb collaborated with Jeremy Sims on the screenplay. The play had a cast playing multiple roles, a total of thirty-four other than the four principals. Jacki Weaver was in the original cast, though Barry Otto was the original Rex. Unlike some other stage-to-screen adaptations, it doesn't feel stagey. It's a road movie which ultimately reveals itself to be a love story.
Jeremy Sims began his career as an actor, appearing as "Young Boy on Raft" at the age of thirteen in Harlequin. He continues to act to this day, but has also directed three feature films, the two previous ones reviewed by me for this site: Last Train to Freo from 2006 and also adapted from his own stage play by Cribb (and rather more obviously theatrically-based) and the much larger-scale war film Beneath Hill 60 from 2010. On the latter he's billed as Jeremy Hartley Sims, but he's dropped the Hartley for this one.
As this is a road movie – and shot where it's set, on the lengthy journey from Broken Hill to Darwin – it's the journey which counts, less so where you arrive, which isn't quite where you suspect. This includes the two younger people Rex picks up along the way: Tilly, an aboriginal (Mark Coles Smith) and Julie, an English barmaid spending time in Australia and who is rather conveniently a nurse (played by Australian-born but British-based Emma Hamilton). Fortunately Cribb and Sims avoid the trap of having a May/December romance between Rex and Julie, though by the end of the film there certainly is a bond between them. She's attracted to Tilly, but finds out he has a wife and children. The cast is first-rate, but it's ultimately Michael Caton's film. While he didn't originate the role on stage, as mentioned above, he makes it his own. Now in his seventies, Caton has had a long career, beginning on television in the late 1960s, and mostly there for the 70s: The Last of the Knucklemen, in 1979, was his second film. For many Australians, he will forever be Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle but this may well run it close.
The film is well-paced and often funny, but that doesn't detract from the seriousness of its subject matter. It also is a romance between a white man and an indigenous woman without making an issue of it, though the film certainly isn't blind to racial prejudice: the two main indigenous characters both refer to not being able to be served in bars. Steve Arnold's widescreen camerawork and Ed Kuepper's music are also points in its favour. The "Jerome" the film is dedicated to is actor Jerome Ehlers, a friend of Sims, who died of cancer in 2014.
In a strong year for Australian films, Last Cab to Darwin pretty much made its money back: A$7million gross on a A$4million budget. It was nominated for eight AACTA Awards, winning for Michael Caton as Best Lead Actor and for Best Adapted Screenplay. At the time of writing it's not confirmed if the film will be distributed in the UK.
Last Cab to Darwin is distributed on Blu-ray in Australia by Icon. It has an (advisory) M rating for "mature themes and coarse language". Due to the latter, in UK terms it would be a 15 if it were submitted to the BBFC.
The film was digitally-captured on the Arri Alexa, and is presented in the intended ratio of 2.40:1. As you would expect from a new film that was digitally shot, digitally edited and entirely or almost entirely digitally projected in cinemas, it looks pristine, with strong colours – capturing the harsh light of the outback settings – and solid blacks. Nothing untoward at all.
The soundtrack comes in either DTS-HD MA 5.1 or Dolby Surround (2.0) and there is also an audio-descriptive track in the latter format. The DTS track is mixed louder than the others, but it's not the most adventurous mix out there, with the surrounds mostly devoted to the music. There are subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing, which colour-code different speakers.
"Gaps Between the Stars" (25:42) is a making-of featurette. It's mostly made up of interviews, with Jeremy Sims dominating. He begins by describing the newspaper article which inspired the play and film, of a taxi driver called Max Bell with terminal cancer who went on a long drive in order to die. There are contributions from Reg Cribb and the principal cast, with Jacki Weaver talking about the original stage production, at the read-through of which she played fifteen female roles. Cribb says that a long evening in a pub in Oodnadatta (South Australia) during a research trip ended up in the film, word for word.
The other extra on the disc is two deleted scenes (2:24 in total): "Mudcrab" and "Lonely Planet", both two-hander scenes featuring Rex, the first with Tilly, the second with Julie. While they're effective in themselves, you can see why they were cut, given that the film ended up at two hours without them.