Newsfront Review

Although I'm neither Australian nor New Zealander, I've had a long-standing interest in Antipodean cinema, which probably started when BBC2 showed seasons of such films in the early 1980s. That was when I first saw Newsfront. One reason for buying a multi-region DVD player was in preparation for the day when Region 4 would start issuing its back catalogue. Some key films have been released on DVD overseas already, notably Criterion's edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Warner's releases of Mad Max 2. Now, with Roadshow's DVD of Newsfront, that day has arrived: an Australian label has released a classic Australian film on a DVD that does it justice.

Newsfront, released in 1978, was a key film in the Australian "New Wave". Although films had been made in Australia since silent days, by the end of the 1960s the industry was at a low ebb, but during the Seventies it revived itself, launching the careers of many talented directors, crewmembers and actors. Phillip Noyce (born 1950) was one of the first intake at the Sydney Film School, established in 1973; among his classmates were Gillian Armstrong (soon to make her debut with My Brilliant Career) and Chris Noonan (director of Babe). Following the hour-long Backroads, Newsfront was his first full-length feature.

Covering nearly a decade (1948 to 1956), the film tells the story of the men who went out and brought the newsreels to an eager nation. Throughout the fifties, where the news was, they were there: anti-Communist paranoia, the tragic Maitland floods, to national pride on show at the Melbourne Olympics. Len Maguire (Bill Hunter) is the central character, whose story we follow through those years, though a failed marriage with Fay (Angela Punch, before she added McGregor to her name), an affair with colleague Amy (Wendy Hughes), brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) finding success in America, to the point when, as television arrived in Australia, he finds himself a man out of time.

A synopsis doesn't convey how entertaining a film Newsfront is: it's often funny, sometimes poignant, and it holds the attention from the outset. Bill Hunter, a long-standing character actor given a leading role, was never better than here: despite compromises, the failure of his marriage and his imminent obsolescence, his dignity and integrity remain intact. There's not a false note amongst the extensive supporting cast.

Newsfront is also an amazing technical feat in that certain scenes integrate contemporary newsreel footage with newly-shot black and white footage. The result is all but seamless, especially in the brilliantly staged Maitland Floods sequence. Most of the film is in colour, and cinematographer Vincent Monton ably mimics the visual style of films of the period. This mixing of colour and monochrome does tend to draw attention to itself, which makes it regrettable that the whole film isn't in black and white – but not only would this have been commercially unviable, it was difficult enough finding enough black and white film stock for the half-hour or so of footage that is in the film! Much of the newsreel footage is fascinating: Marx Brothers fans will particularly be interested in the opening scene, where Chico leads a singalong of "Waltzing Matilda".

The original script was written by Bob Ellis (from a concept by producer David Elfick and, uncredited, Philippe Mora). Due to rewrites, mostly for length and budget reasons, Ellis took his name off the screenplay: it's credited to Noyce, from an original screenplay by Ellis. Now, Ellis acknowledges in the commentary, Newsfront is the best film he was ever involved with and not the disaster he predicted at the time. Whether Ellis's full-length script would have been better is impossible to say, as the additional scenes were never filmed; certainly the end product does tend towards the episodic. As Ellis acknowledges, film-making is a series of compromises and hopes that it would all work. And for the most part, Newsfront works very well indeed. It's a film that is very Australian in many ways but, like all the best films, its appeal is universal.

Roadshow have a deserved reputation for the excellence of their DVDs. This was one back-catalogue item which they had to do right by, and they have. Newsfront was shown in cinemas in a ratio of 1.75:1. For TV purposes that's as near to 16:9 as makes no practical difference, and accordingly that's the ratio on this DVD. The colours are vibrant, with strong blacks and good shadow detail. The black and white footage is sharp with good contrast. There are some specks and contrast problems on the newsreel footage (which is presumably reframed from 4:3, but isn't noticeably cropped), but that's due to the original materials. There is some minor artefacting in a couple of places, but nothing distracting. Quite a lot of care has been taken in this film's digital remastering, and it shows.

The sound is a different matter: originally mono, it's been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. Again, this has been done better than other remixed soundtracks I can think of: the dynamic range is better, and it avoids the usual problem of compressed-sounding dialogue. As for the directional effects, there is quite a lot of use made of left and right, but the surrounds only really kick in during the flood sequence. The subwoofer isn't used much, bit occasionally fills in the bottom end of the music score.

Roadshow have provided a lot of extras, and most of them are very worthwhile. The commentary is mostly by Noyce, Elfick and Ellis, but there are also contributions from (in order of appearance) Bill Hunter, Richard Brennan (associate producer, who reads extracts from his production diary), Vincent Monton, Wendy Hughes, Angela Punch McGregor, Bryan Brown, William Motzing (composer), Norma Moriceau (costume designer), Lorna Lesley (actress – she plays the girlfriend of camera assistant Chris, played by Chris Haywood), John Scott (editor) and Lissa Coote (production designer). Someone has been taking a leaf out of Criterion's book: the track is tightly edited and well-thought out, consistently interesting without any real dead spots. Amusingly, Bill Hunter is bleeped out in a couple of places – presumably to leave his words intact would have needlessly raised the DVD's certificate. (Parents might wish to know that there is quite a lot of low-level swearing in this film, which is no doubt authentic for the characters and the period. I suspect this film wouldn't be of great interest to younger teenagers in any case.)

"The Newsfront Story" is text with a simple back-and-forth navigation. It covers the making of the film from original concept to its release, with a coda dealing with its restoration for DVD. The text pages are illustrated with newspaper clippings, photographs and the like, plus in the appropriate place a link footage from the 1978 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, with a commentary by Noyce.
(Newsfront was the first film to be nominated in all categories and won eight.) This item can also be accessed from the extras menu. "The Last Newsreel" is an independently-made item, a light-hearted look at the history of newsreels and their preservation, provided by Screensound Australia. It runs ten minutes and is probably the most lightweight item on the disc; it certainly doesn't stand up to repeated viewings. There are surprisingly detailed biographies of the leading cast (the names above) plus Noyce and Elfick.

The photo gallery is what you might expect: monochrome and colour stills with, again, a back-and-forth navigation. At least they fill the screen (on a widescreen TV) which makes the navigation buttons rather too obtrusive. The trailer (which runs 1:43) is of the kind that shows clips from almost all the major scenes in the film, with a song playing on the soundtrack. I don't have access to a DVD-ROM drive, let alone to a Region 4 one, so I can't comment on the features except to list them above.

All the extras and menus are, like the feature, in anamorphic 16:9. The scene selection page is quite effective: select a scene and it plays in a small box on your screen. There are twenty-nine chapter stops.

The "New Wave" (roughly 1968 to 1985) was a golden age of Australian cinema. Most of its leading lights now work in Hollywood, but it laid the foundations for an industry which at its best is still vibrant today. Noyce has had a variable career with Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Saint and The Bone Collector, none of which is anywhere near as good as his Australian work. Let's hope that his recent return to his home country to make Rabbit-Proof Fence is more fruitful. In the meantime, there are a lot of fine films from that era not on DVD – when they do get released, I hope to review them for DVD Times.

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