The Leunig Fragments Review
Michael Leunig (pronounced LOO-nig, born 1945) is a household name in Australia, if not known elsewhere. A poet and artist, his cartoons, often involving political commentary, are most commonly found in the pages of Melbourne’s The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, though in his earlier career he appeared in such magazines as Oz, the counterculture monthly edited by Australian expats in London which was memorably tried for obscenity in 1971. In 1999, Leunig (who signs his cartoons just with his surname) was declared an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia, one of seventy-nine currently alive out of a maximum list of one hundred.
Kasimir Burgess’s documentary, made over five years, is partly a record of its own making, as it begins with Burgess and Leunig in a cafe discussing the film about to be made. The Leunig Fragments in many ways takes the standard form of a documentary portrait: interviews with the subject and others, archive material, also dramatised scenes from Leunig’s childhood. There is also stock footage, including some illustrating Leunig’s early job in an abattoir (squeamish warning). We also see a lot of his cartoons, not just the finished articles, some in animated form, but we also see him at work.
Towards the end of the film, we see a public event where Leunig draws a cartoon live in front of an audience, accompanied by an orchestra and a soprano singer. The cartoons have a consistent look and theme, his characters having exaggerated noses and somewhat mournful smiles. He clearly has a thing about ducks. Phillip Adams, a longstanding friend of Leunig’s and a film producer and broadcaster (and also an Australian Living Treasure), describes his style as “weaponised whimsy”.
But there’s a difficulty at the heart of this film, for all its evident admiration. This is stated up front by one of Leunig’s fans, who has imagery from his cartoons tattooed on her legs. “I know who he is. I don’t know the man.” Leunig himself says that he has a contradiction at his heart. This film is “a story by and about me. I don’t want to conceal anything. I don’t want to reveal anything.”And he doesn’t, much. You wonder if a film like this is something he cannot control. Some controversies are barely mentioned, or avoided altogether, such as his cartoons on the War on Terror and his cartoons which have been criticised as sexist and anti-feminist, and also taking up anti-vaxxer positions.
We do find out things about his life. Leunig describes himself as a “black sheep” of his family (one of whom, his sister Mary, is also a well-known cartoonist, though the film doesn’t mention this) and he was unable (unwilling?) to attend his father’s funeral. Instead, his observance of his father’s passing was to sit in a church for an hour. He talks about his meeting his first wife Pamela, and it’s during the making of this film that his second marriage (to Helga) breaks down. Only one of his immediate family was able to be interviewed: his second son Sunny by his first marriage, who tells us that Leunig didn’t make a speech at Sunny’s twenty-first birthday but instead read Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” (the one which begins, “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”).
The closest relationship Leunig has, or at least is willing to talk about, is with his teacher Joan, who first spotted his talent as a cartoonist. We see him visit her, now frail and dependent after a series of strokes, in her ageing care facility. She taught him a lot, he says, and now she is teaching him how to die. This comes home a little later, when Leunig is interviewed, hospital wristband still on, after being rushed to hospital with bleeding on the brain, clearly shaken by the experience.
The Leunig Fragments is a strange, disquieting film, not at all the standard documentary profile it seems to be at first and was possibly intended to be. Leunig’s work is there for all to see. The man himself remains out of reach.
The Leunig Fragments was released in Australian cinemas on 13 February. UK showings and distribution are to be advised.