Charlie's Country Review
Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, the present day. Charlie (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal man, lives a traditional way of life, but feels out of place in his society, and misunderstood. One day, when the police confiscate his hunting spear because they think it's a weapon, he decides it's time to live on his own, but that's not so easy...
Dutch-born Australian director Rolf de Heer has one of the most fascinatingly various bodies of work of any director currently living, as I have described in my earlier review of The Tracker. One thing which ties this filmography together is a regular returning to characters with a "naïve" view of the world, one that separates them from the people around them, whether that of a childlike adult kept away from the outside world for thirty-plus years (Bad Boy Bubby), an actual child (The Quiet Room), an adult with cerebral palsy (Dance Me to My Song). And while I would certainly not call Charlie naïve, it's certainly the case that he's at odds with the society he is part of, one that he does not belong to, even if his people are the ancient owners of the land.
De Heer has returned more than once to indigenous themes, increasingly so. David Gulpilil starred in The Tracker and narrated Ten Canoes, which won de Heer the Australian Film Institute award (now the AACTA Award) for Best Film. In that film, de Heer collaborated closely with his Aboriginal castmembers, even to the extent of making the film in their language, with only Gulpilil's narration in English (in the theatrical release version). The film was also co-directed by Peter Djigirr, who plays the role of Black Pete here. Ten Canoes spawned an online-only sequel, Twelve Canoes, available here, made in collaboration with the Yolngu people of Ramingining. Charlie's Country continues this process, with David Gulpilil co-writing the script as well as playing the title role.
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Gulpilil playing Charlie, as no other Aboriginal actor has such a history in Australia, going back over forty years to his role in Walkabout, made when he was a teenager. Now sixty, with a beard largely overrun with white, Gulpilil gives Charlie considerable dignity as a man struggling to find his place in the world. Around him his fellow Aboriginals have similar problems, and the film does not avoid dealing with many of the issues they face, such as alcoholism. Gulpilil is a naturally charismatic actor, and it's due to him that this film is as affecting as it is.
Several of de Heer's films have been made in deliberately experimental ways. But this time, perhaps realising that he has a fine central performance to carry the film, he shoots in a more restrained, almost classical way, though there is more than a hint of documentary as we watch Charlie paint tree bark and cook barramundi fish the traditional way. The cinematography by de Heer's regular DP Ian Jones is fine. Gary Sweet and Garry Waddell, who had both played lead roles in previous de Heer films, turn up in small roles here.
But it's Gulpilil's film. He won Best Actor in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2014. As I write this, Charlie's Country has been nominated for AACTA Awards in five categories: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Sound, all due to be awarded on 29 January 2015 in Sydney. In the UK, after showings at the London Film Festival, Charlie's Country bypassed cinema release and went straight to the DVD under review.
Charlie's Country is released by StudioCanal on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The film was not actually shot on celluloid, but digitally captured on the Arri Alexa. The DVD transfer is in the intended ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. You'd expect a DVD transfer from a digitally-generated current film to look pristine, and it does: it's sharp and faithful to an intentionally muted colour palette.
The soundtrack comes with two options, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. There's not a great deal to choose between them, as the surrounds are mostly used for ambience and Graham Tardif's music score. The dialogue is about half in Yolngu Matha and half in English, and subtitles for the latter are fixed, appearing in the bottom black bar of the picture.
There are no extras.