The FJ Holden Review

Bankstown, a suburb of Sydney, the mid 1970s. By day Kevin (Paul Couzens, no relation) works as an apprentice car mechanic. By night, he and his best mate Bob (Carl Stever) drive around town in his yellow FJ Holden, crashing parties and picking up girls. Then one night he meets Anna (Eva Dickinson) who works in a clothes shop in Bankstown Square. She agrees to go to the pub one night, but after a dull evening she rides home in their car and has sex with them in turn…

By the mid-Seventies, in the wake of such international successes as Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Australian Film Revival (or New Wave, as it was often called) was well under way. But there was already a stereotype forming: that a new Australian film was a well-acted, good-looking period piece. Admittedly part of this may be due to Australians not wishing their country to be associated with such lowbrow “ocker” comedies as Stork and the two Barry McKenzie movies, which had more of a claim to have started the revival. But that would be to ignore a significant strand in local cinema, a more suburban-realist strand. And one of the best of them is The FJ Holden, directed by Michael Thornhill and released in 1977.

Michael Thornhill is now a neglected name in Australian cinema. Admittedly his output is uneven and flawed, but on the basis of this film he deserves more attention. Having said that, much of his work is hard to see nowadays: The FJ Holden has never had a commercial UK release. Presumably it was thought too Australian, with its title referring to an icon of Australian popular culture that would be obscure to Brits. But if the details are different, the characters are certainly recognisable, even if you were never there at the time and place this film was made and set in.

Born in 1941 in Sydney, Thornhill began as an assistant film editor on documentaries in the late 1950s before becoming a film critic. He moved into fiction-film production with some short films, some based on stories by his friend, the writer Frank Moorhouse, and some using the talents of a young cameraman called Russell Boyd. In 1974, Boyd was the DP on Between Wars, which marked the feature debut for both Thornhill and himself. (You can see extracts from Between Wars in The FJ Holden: it’s playing on television during the sex scene.) Between Wars was critically successful and did quite well in Australia, but less well overseas. It had a brief run in London, and fell victim to a general disdain that London’s “intellectual” arthouse set had for all things Australian. After this, Thornhill produced Summer of Secrets (1976), directed by Jim Sharman, before beginning work with writer Terry Larsen on a low-budget project about young people set in the western suburbs of Sydney. The FJ Holden was shot in six and a half weeks towards the end of 1976. The film had some problems with the censors, of which more later. It had its premiere in April 1977, simultaneously in Sydney, Melbourne and at the Chullora Drive-In, close to where the film had been made – anyone turning up in a FJ or FX Holden got in free. The film did better at drive-ins than at regular cinemas and sold to a few countries abroad, though apart from a showing at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival, the UK was not one of them.

Comparisons have been made with American Graffiti, though Thornhill claims his influences are more European, particularly the earlier New Wave that had happened in France. I was also reminded of the work of directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, at the time working in television due to the non-existence of much of a British film industry. The FJ Holden shares the look of their films of a naturalism that’s deceptive, as if Thornhill had stuck a camera down somewhere and recorded what he sees. But if you look closer, you’ll see that Thornhill, like Leigh, uses details of production design to tell you things about his characters and their social milieu. And like Loach, he can get fine performances out of non-professional actors. He also avoids Leigh’s occasional tendency towards caricature, and Loach’s towards didacticism. The film tries its best to avoid melodrama, to the extent that it can be too low-key and misleadingly formless for some viewers. But it does hold the attention through good humour and a lack of sentimentality. The scene in the back of the car, where Anna has sex with Bob and then Kevin is deliberately unemotional, and no doubt accurate.

The adults in the film were played by established character actors, but the teenaged leads were non-professionals. Eva Dickinson was seventeen and still at school, and her acting experience had been restricted to school plays. Thornhill gets extraordinary performances out of the three young leads, particularly in a late scene where Kevin and Bob have a drunken conversation, where the line between acting and being has all but disappeared. This is the only film for Paul Couzens, Eva Dickinson and Carl Stever, though Dickinson did appear in a TV series called Glenview High. One young actress who did go on to better things is Sigrid Thornton, making her debut here in the small role of Wendy. Frankie J. Holden, a popular singer (though no relation to the car as far as I’m aware), sings the title song and makes a cameo appearance at the party.

The film attracted criticism from different quarters: according to Thornhill, the right objected to what they saw as the lack of morality, while the left criticised the film for not dealing with social issues such as unemployment. The censor gave the film an R certificate, on the grounds of a couple of sex scenes and a smattering of strong language. This excluded the under-eighteens and probably a large part of the film’s audience. The distributors appealed and had the certificate reduced to an M. (The MA 15+ didn’t exist then.) The FJ Holden was an M in the states of Victoria and New South Wales; however, other states objected and restored the original R.

Michael Thornhill went on to make The Journalist in 1979, a reputedly unfunny comedy starring Jack Thompson and Sam Neill, and a TV movie, Robbery. (1985) which did receive UK video releases. His most recent theatrical feature was The Everlasting Secret Family (1988), which received a brief UK cinema run. He seems not to have worked since, which is a pity, as The FJ Holden displays real talent.

The FJ Holden is released by Umbrella Entertainment as part of their Oz Classics line. The DVD is encoded for all regions.

The original aspect ratio of The F.J. Holden was 1.85:1. Umbrella’s DVD transfer is anamorphic and slightly windowboxed into a ratio of approximately 1.75:1. David Gribble’s shot the film on fast film stock that was newly available, often in available light. Especially in the night scenes, the film has a colourful though unslick look that’s quite appealing, and inevitably some grain. Occasionally reel-change markers appear, but nothing too distracting. Given the film’s low-budget origins, this is probably as good as it is likely to look.

With one possible exception, all the films of the 70s revival were released in cinemas with mono soundtracks. The FJ Holden was not that exception. (According to one source, the 1979 film Oz showed in some venues with a four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack. I’m not quite certain what was the first Australian film with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack was, but it would have to predate Mad Max 2 in 1982.) However, you can tell that the DVD soundtrack has been remixed from the outset, when Frankie J. Holden’s title song “My Right of Way” comes out of the surround speakers. Also using the surrounds are some directional noise (engines, the music score and some ambient sounds, particularly crickets at night). How necessary it was to remix the sound is up to you, though it’s not as objectionable as many such efforts. The dialogue is clear enough, but I’m not hard of hearing and I’m a native English speaker not unused to Australian accents. With those people in mind, I once again have to regret Umbrella’s policy of not subtitling their DVDs.

The main extra is an audio commentary featuring Michael Thornhill interviewed by film writer Paul Galvin. Thornhill is hardly the most forthcoming interviewee, opening the track by giving short answers and often saying “I don’t remember”. He does warm up after a while and has some interesting things to say, but this is hardly the most enlightening commentary you will ever hear.

Also on the disc is the theatrical trailer (1:24) and five other trailers for Australian films released on DVD by Umbrella: Oz, The Chain Reaction, Return Home and Puberty Blues.

The FJ Holden is a low-key slice-of-life comedy-drama that came out in Australia at a time when many fine films were making their debut. Nowadays it’s been rather neglected. This DVD is a welcome opportunity to reassess it, or even to see it at all.

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