Oyster Farmer Review

Jack Flange (Alex O’Lachlan) starts work in an oyster farming community on the Hawkesbury River, outside Sydney. He’s there to earn money for his sister Nikki’s (Claudia Harrison) hospital treatment as she convalesces after a car accident. It’s run by Brownie (David Field), his estranged wife Trish (Kerry Armstrong) and Brownie’s father Mumbles (Jim Norton). Jack soon has eyes for Pearl (Diana Glenn). But Jack has a secret…

…Which we find out soon after the start of Oyster Farmer, when a desperate for cash Jack stages a robbery at the Sydney Fish Markets and posts the proceeds to himself at the Hawkesbury River. But days pass and the money does not arrive. And when it does the postman suffers a heart attack while delivering it, resulting in the package ending in the river, not to be found. Such melodrama – you can hear the squeaks as the plot contrivances ease themselves into place – gets Anna Reeves’s film off to an awkward start. The film remains oddly paced, coming to a rather abrupt end. But for stretches along the way, writer-director Anna Reeves’s debut feature is a frequently impressive piece of work. It ultimately becomes a double love story, with the attraction between Jack and Pearl counterpointed by a reconciliation between Brownie and Trish.

Reeves shows a real eye and ear for the rhythms and relationships of a group of working men. (Some real oyster farmers appear as extras.) It’s a macho world where women are out of place, even if one like Trish is better at the job than any of them. The day-to-day camaraderie, which can turn on a sixpence to violence, is very well caught, and much of the dialogue is saltily funny. Jim Norton steals scenes with a performance that could, in lesser hands, have been a stereotype of Irish folk wisdom. Alex O’Lachlan has a larrikin charm that helps disguise the fact that his character isn’t as sympathetic as he might be. The rest of the cast give solid performances, including the ever-reliable Jack Thompson in a smaller role. Meanwhile, Alun Bollinger’s camerawork, especially of the river, is gorgeous.

Despite some flaws, there’s a lot to like and admire in Oyster Farmer, and it makes you want to see what Anna Reeves will do next. The film was a nominee for the AFI Award for Best Picture in a strong year, along with The Proposition, Little Fish and the eventual winner Look Both Ways. Alun Bollinger was also nominated. It has been certified (15) by the BBFC for both cinema and home release, though as I write this in January 2007 neither has happened as yet.

Magna Pacific’s edition of Oyster Farmer is a single dual-layered DVD, encoded for Region 4 only. The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is sharp, and the vibrant colour scheme of the film comes over very well, with good blacks and shadow detail.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, with an analogue Dolby Surround alternative. There’s not a great deal in the way of surround, apart from the Irish-themed music score by Stephen Warbeck and ambient sound. However, the dialogue is always clear, though regrettably Magna Pacific have not seen fit to provide subtitles.

There are two commentary tracks on this DVD. The first is by Anna Reeves. She gives an engaging talk, describing her four years of researching the film by talking to real-life oyster farmers, as well as anecdotes from the production – such as the time when she slipped over in mud and grabbed hold of the nearest thing, which turned out to be the chief grip’s bottom. Commentary two is by producer Anthony Buckley with leading actor David Field, and is much more inconsequential. It might have been beneficial to edit this together with Reeves’s track, if it hadn’t been possible to record all three together.

The rest of the extras begin with two short films by Anna Reeves. “La Vie en Rose” (6:52) was made in 1994 and looks as if it was shot on video or at least transferred from a video copy as lines are frequently visible. “The Imploding Self” (13:19), shot on 35mm, is longer and more ambitious.

Next up are three deleted and extended scenes: “Water Whores” (1:58), “Trish and Brownie Make Up” (1:57) and “Harvest” (0:36). As usual, it’s easy to see why these were taken out as none of them add much to the film that’s not already there.

A set of cast and crew interviews follows, each taking the form of a text question appearing on screen with the interviewee’s answer. The interviews are with Anna Reeves (9:44), Anthony Buckley (2:59), Alex O’Lachlan (2:52), Diana Glenn (1:31), David Field (0:49) and Kerry Armstrong (2:41). There is a “Play All” option.

Andrew Urban reviews the film and interviews Anna Reeves in an extract from the TV show Urban Cinefile. (2:06). The disc is completed by four trailers, for A Home at the End of the World, Human Touch, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Enron.

A very good debut from Anna Reeves, Oyster Farmer is certainly well worth tracking down. Magna Pacific’s DVD presents it very well, with a good set of extras.

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