Last Train to Freo Review

Midnight, on a hot summer night in Western Australia. Two ex-cons get on a train at Midland. It’s the last train of the night, going through Perth and ending at Fremantle (Freo). The guards are on strike. The two men - “The Tall Thug” (as the credits put it, played by Steve Le Marquand) and Trev (Tom Budge) – are bored and restless. When a beautiful young woman, Lisa (Gigi Edgley), steps into the carriage, they turn their attentions to her.

It’s no surprise that Last Train to Freo is based on a stage play: The Return by Reg Cribb, who wrote the screenplay. (He also appears briefly as a cyclist whom the Tall Thug forcibly prevents getting onto the train.) Apart from the opening scene and the final shot, the film takes place entirely in the train carriage and plays out in real time. Cinema’s epic potential is not in doubt, but there is something powerful about the small-scale done well – the film obeys the Three Unities (time, place and action) of the Ancient Greek dramatists.

The film starts slowly, picking up the pace when Lisa arrives. Two more major characters appear later: Maureen, a middle-aged woman (Gillian Jones), who alone seems to want to stand up to the thugs, and a mysterious man (Glenn Hazeldine) who says nothing – and what is he writing in a notebook? Over eighty minutes or so, layers are unpeeled and revelations are made, and the film does wrongfoot some objections you might have – why would a young woman go into a train carriage with two men in it alone at midnight? are there no other carriages? – as it becomes clear that ulterior motives abound? I didn’t quite buy the plot twist that comes in an hour, and the dialogue tends towards the overtly theatrical. But there’s no doubting the strength of the cast, especially Steve Le Marquand in the showiest role – imposing and threatening by turns, articulate and self-taught in his many stays in prison, finally very vulnerable, but clearly also a master manipulator. Tom Budge is a ball of restless energy as his sidekick. Gigi Edgley, Gillian Jones and Glenn Hazeldine are also very good, but I won’t say more to avoid spoilers. There’s also no doubting the resourcefulness shown by first-time-feature-director Jeremy Sims in shooting in such a confined space. (Apart from the shots of characters getting on and off, which were done in a real train, the film was shot in a studio set.) Although there are times when the pace lags, as it would in real time, Last Train to Freo holds your attention to the end, despite some melodramatic turns to the storyline.

A subtlety that may escape non-Australians is explained in the commentary: Perth is one of the most affluent cities in the country (and also one of the most isolated), and there’s a growing, noticeable gap between the haves and the have-nots who live in towns like Midland – something which increases the tension between The Tall Thug and Trev on one side and Lisa (a law student) on the other.

Last Train to Freo was nominated for three Australian Film Institute Awards in a strong year: Steve Le Marquand as Best Actor, Tom Budge as Best Supporting Actor and to Reg Cribb for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film has not had a British release of any kind as I write this.

Madman’s edition of Last Train to Freo is a dual-layered PAL disc encoded for Region 4 only.

Shot in HD by Toby Oliver, Last Train to Freo is transferred to DVD in the an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The colours, especially the skin tones, tend towards the orange, but I’ve no doubt that’s intentional. The DVD transfer is sharp and colourful with strong blacks, and if there was a flaw I missed it.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Considering how dialogue-driven the film is, it’s surprising how immersive the soundtrack is, adding to the ambience without becoming too overt. Train noises, and some subwoofer-assisted deep bass rumbles add to the effect. There is a Dolby Surround alternative. Unfortunately Madman have not provided any subtitles.

The commentary track is provided by Jeremy Sims and Steve Le Marquand, recorded together. There’s a good rapport between the two men, and the result is often quite funny, while imparting quite a lot of information about how such a film was made. We learn about the advantages of shooting HD instead of 35mm, how the script breaks some of the usual “rules” of screenwriting. Sims apparently wanted a small-scale simple project for his first feature – he’d directed the play on stage – and found out that making a film in one set with a principal cast of five in real time was anything but…

Also on the DVD are a behind-the-scenes featurette (17:09). Along with Sims and Le Marquand, the interviewees include writer Reg Cribb, DP Toby Oliver and producers Greg Duffy, Sue Taylor and Lisa Duff, production designer Clayton Jauncey, set builder Murray Clarke, first assistant director Michael Faranda, continuity Lisa Burns and all the principal cast except Gillian Jones. Sims and Le Marquand are interviewed in a separate featurette (26:04): some of the information from the commentary is repeated, but Sims does take the opportunity to expand on the sociological themes of his film. The original theatrical trailer (1:27) is also included and also “Madman Propaganda”, trailers for other releases: Ten Canoes, Kenny, Look Both Ways, Candy and Three Dollars,

Last Train to Freo came out in one of the strongest recent years for Australian cinema – the AFI nominees for Best Picture were, Candy, Jindabyne, Kenny and the winner Ten Canoes - and is in danger of being overlooked. However, despite some flaws there’s definite talent here, and I would be interested in seeing what Jeremy Sims and Steve Le Marquand do next.

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