Hammers Over the Anvil Review
Australia, 1910. Fourteen-year-old Alan Marshall (Alexander Outhred) hero-worships horse trainer East Driscoll (Russell Crowe). Alan also has a crush on aristocratic Englishwoman Grace McAlister (Charlotte Rampling). Soon, Alan – who walks on crutches due to childhood polio - witnesses a romance developing between East and the married Grace. Soon East is pressuring Grace to leave her husband and run away with him. As Alan watches, this is a love story that cannot have a happy outcome.
Following Celia, there was much anticipation for Ann Turner’s next feature, which became disappointment when Hammers Over the Anvil was released four years later. It underperformed at the Australian box office, and is the only one of Turner’s four features to date not to have had a British cinema release. It came out on video, and later DVD, as a budget release. Quite a few Australian films have turned up as no-frills releases (full-frame transfer, 2.0 soundtrack, minimal or no extras) in the UK – presumably as the rights are not expensive and as the dialogue is in English no subtitling is required. However, Hammers Over the Anvil picked up some latterday fame in the UK when extracts from the opening sequence – showing Russell Crowe nude on horseback – turned up one Christmas on a BBC show called Before They Were Famous.
Hammers Over the Anvil may suffer in comparison with Celia, or for that matter the thematically similar The Go-Between, but it's not a bad film. It’s a decently made one that simply never really catches fire. As with Celia, we're in a period/historical setting and we see the events through the eyes of a child, but both devices are less effectively used this time round. This may be due to Alexander Outhred’s performance, capable as it is, not being on the same level as Rebecca Smart’s in the earlier film. Also, as Alan is an adolescent he’s less “innocent” than Celia was at age eight. I’m not going to suggest this is entirely due to gender difference, but Turner (who cowrote the script with Peter Hepworth from stories by the real Alan Marshall) doesn’t seem to have got to grips with her central character. That opening scene, with Alan watching East, comes across as homoerotic rather than the hero-worship that is presumably intended. (Alan comes across as straight elsewhere in the film.) In addition, Alan's voiceover seems to be used to patch over gaps in the script, with plot details being imparted that way more than once. We’re held at arm’s length, which means that the affair between East and Grace, only seen in glimpses, doesn’t hold our attention or move us as it should. What remains are some well-handled sequences, some good acting and some haunting imagery, most notably a sequence of an old lady who gets her wish to die looking at the stars on a frosty night.
Turner’s next feature was 1994’s Dallas Doll, which did receive a UK release from Tartan. I haven’t seen that film since its release, but I found it a tepid update on Pasolini’s Theorem, with Sandra Bernhard in the Terence Stamp role as the mysterious stranger who seduces each member of a household in turn. Those looking for recurring themes in Turner’s work may notice the parent/child dynamics making themselves felt again, something which features in Turner’s next film Irresistible, made twelve years later.
Hammers Over the Anvil is released by Stax Entertainment as a single-layered DVD encoded for all regions.
This is a seven-year-old DVD which was first released at a budget price. At least the 4:3 image is open-matte: the picture happily zooms to 16:9. The original ratio is most likely 1.85:1, if not that then 1.75:1. However, don’t expect state of the art visual quality and you won’t be disappointed. This looks like it was mastered from a good video master – there’s an all-round lack of crispness to the image that I suspect will really show up badly on high-end equipment. There's some notable artefacting in places, particularly in scenes involving smoke or mist. I suspect that Umbrella’s 2007 Region 4 release – which is apparently in the correct ratio at least – will be superior, but as I don’t have access to that disc and online reviews are lacking, that can only be a guess.
The soundtrack is better. It’s Dolby Digital 2.0, but as this film predates most digital soundtracks, this track does replicate that of the cinema release. It plays as Dolby Surround with your amp set to PCM or Dolby ProLogic. The surrounds are often given over to Not Drowning Waving’s music score, but there are some directional effects as well. English subtitles would be too much to hope for, and there aren’t any.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (1:57).