It’s the summer of 1969 and young 16 year old Willie (Rocky McKenzie) lives in the idyllic old pearling port Broome, in the North of Western Australia. He fishes, hangs out with his mates, and occasionally, his girl Rosie (Jessica Mauboy). However his mother Theresa has great hopes for him and she sends him back to the religious mission in Perth for further schooling. Willie runs away from the mission after he is punished by the fearsome Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush).
Down on his luck he meets an old fella, who he calls ‘Uncle’ Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), and together they con a couple of hippies, Annie and Slippery, into taking them on the 2,500 km journey through spectacular landscape back to Broome. Willie learns the hard and funny lessons he needs to get home, all the while pursued by Father Benedictus.
BRAN NUE DAE is the new feature film based on the well-known Western Australian musical written by Jimmy Chi. The musical was a national success 20 years ago and is a particular favourite of Western Australians and the people of Broome particularly. The film is a breakthrough in Australian terms being an Indigenous film opening wide on 150 screens across the country
Director Rachel Perkins has made a straight- down-the line entertaining musical that moves so very quickly that no scene can overstay its welcome. Perkins collaborated on the screenplay with Jimmy Chi and playwright Reg Cribb.
For three quarters of its length Bran Nue Dae is a road movie and Perkins whips us through many dazzling locations and characters. The landscape is beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie. The songs of Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles still sparkle – they uplift in some instances and retain their satirical kick in others.
As the hero Willie, newcomer Rocky McKenzie’s performance needed to be stronger to take on the central position in the story. The main character of the film becomes Uncle Tadpole. It’s been a number of years since Dingo acted in a dramatic role, he has spent a much of his time as a television presenter, however he hasn’t lost any of his ability or screen charisma. He is the heart and soul of the film. His timing is dead-on and he perfectly embodies Tadpole’s roguish charm in every scene he’s in.
Jessica Mauboy who plays Willie’s girl is a sweet presence and her character could have been rounded out further. Dan Sultan plays Lester, the chief rival for Rosie’s affections. He is also on screen for too short a time. Geoffrey Rush is frankly, over-the-top with his dodgy German accent and Missy Higgins doesn’t punch through in the role of Annie. Ningali Lawford-Wolf is very strong as Willie’s God-fearing mother.
The movie is mostly comedic and feel-good, but it also has some serious things to say. Willie’s Christian education under the controlling Father Benedictus is destructive and it is clear Willie needs to leave. Even more seriously, is the scene of Tadpole and Willie in a lock-up and the powerful images and music that accompany this scene, tell the story of a people being incarcerated and subject to white law.
BRAN NUE DAE is upbeat and entertaining, but the story is also about surviving hardship and being able to find happiness. It helps if you have songs as good as these.
AUSTRALIA | 85 minutes | (6/10)
(L-R) Ernie Dingo and Missy Higgins