– by David Morgan-Brown
Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil first graced the big screen with his memorable performance in the very memorable Australia-set film Walkabout back in 1971. He’s had a number of roles in Australian film, TV, and theatre since, and has worked with director Rolf de Heer recently on two very acclaimed Australian films Ten Canoes and The Tracker, however it is here (with what is likely to be another highly acclaimed Australian film) that feels de Heer is allowing this to be Gulpilil’s film, something for him to address the controversy of his life (and the lives of others) in a slightly biographical way.
The actor has faced a number of legal issues in the past, which have been addressed and emphasised in this film. David seems to have taken those problems and utilised them like an emotional reservoir to conjure up this very deeply felt, yet charismatic and seemingly very personal performance. He won the Best Actor award for ‘Un Certain Regard’ (Out of Competition) at Cannes Film festival in France earlier this year — I haven’t seen the other films this one was against, but they’d be hard-pressed to have a better piece of acting in them.
The story of land ownership and the conflict between the native Aboriginals and white people is ripe for morally/politically ambiguous material. This set-up could’ve allowed for easy demonising and humanising amongst the two races, but Charlie’s Country doesn’t trip into those easy pitfalls, instead making the effort to not only offer a wide variety of supporting characters (good and bad, white and black), but to also focus on Charlie and characterise him with deeply human traits like flaws, humour, contradictions, warmth, and an underlying desire to better himself and his community.
True to the title, the land that encapsulates Charlie is also a predominant aspect of the film. His bush area where he retreats may appear lush, but it’s also the villain that assaults Charlie physically in some sort of masochistic, return-to-form ritual of this Aboriginal upset over having his respectable traditions ruined by police involvement. This scene in particular has a visceral effect (thanks to the excellent cinematography and sound), making the viewer feel hungrier and colder as they witness Charlie become starving and freezing.
This film is an incredibly affecting one, and it’s easy to be swept away by David’s charismatic and humorous performance that twists and turns into much darker and realist territory. This doesn’t just feel like a good Australian film, it feels like an important one, so hopefully it will get the recognition it deserves. If you have even the slightest interest in Australian cinema or culture, go see it.