Australian directors' films flow at an ebb, but many are on video

January 03, 1992|By Richard Fuller | Richard Fuller,Knight-Ridder News Service

"With a good film, the nationality is secondary," said the writer-director at the time of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. "The film is its own country."

The writer-director was an Australian, Peter Weir, whose film that year was "The Year of Living Dangerously," set in the Indonesia of 1965 and co-starring the American-born, Australian-raised Mel Gibson and the very American Sigourney Weaver, with an erratic English accent.

Plenty of nationalities there. Mr. Weir has since directed films in America, including "Witness" (1985), filmed partly in Philadelphia; "Dead Poets Society" (1989), in Delaware; and "Green Card" (1990), in New York; and "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), filmed in Central America and the United States.

He may have become cosmopolitan, but he's one of the leading products of a purely Australian effort that started bearing cinematic fruit in 1975.

That year, Mr. Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" was released. It's a film that shines into the memory of your soul, the way the best movies resonantly do. Here was the work of a director new to us, from a country we didn't even know had a film industry. Soon after, other Australian movies emerged to astonish the film world.

How did it happen?

Surprisingly enough, through some influential critics and would-be film producers' lobbying the Australian government about the fact that their country had no film business and therefore no identity in the powerful medium.

That was back in the Aussie Dark Ages of 1970, when Prime Minister John Gorton pushed for a bill to establish an Australian Film Development Corp. "to encourage the production and distribution of Australian films of high quality."

Such a bill worked very well in a country where nearly everyone went to the movies. But the theaters and movies playing in them were mostly American-owned and made. One could anticipate that good things would happen soon when expatriate Bruce Beresford, who had left some 10 years before to work in England, returned.

One could argue that the government's pushing for a high-quality national cinema worked only too well. The films that made Australia internationally respected also made its directors and stars equally famous, and in demand, in the world's biggest film market, America.

As the prolific Mr. Beresford noted, "America is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the world market for films." You have to make a reputation in the United States, argued Mr. Beresford, to continue making films. Maybe backed by huge American budgets.

The wonderful rush of Australian films would seem to be over, at least as it was experienced in this country during the late 1970s and the '80s. But the miracle of the medium is that it is living history, now on video.

Here are the top Australian directors and their best films. The filmmakers are listed alphabetically, which allows the sole woman to go first.

GILLIAN ARMSTRONG

"My Brilliant Career" (1979) may have been threatening because it was directed by a woman and was based on the autobiographical story of a strong-minded woman (played by the strong-minded Judy Davis) in turn-of-the-century Australia. The highly regarded film introduced Americans to Sam Neill and Wendy Hughes. Movie mavens will recall Ms. Davis' awesome presence in the recent "Impromptu."

Other notable Armstrong films:

*"Starstruck" (1982): A little charmer about a 17-year-old woman who wants to make it as a singer.

LTC *"Mrs. Soffel" (1984): It's the turn-of-the-century again, but in America this time as Diane Keaton helps two prisoners escape, including the charismatic Mel Gibson. Clubbed by many American critics. Underrated.

*"High Tide" (1987): This fine film argues that you can go home again. Davis plays a singer who encounters her teen-age daughter, whom she had abandoned years before.

BRUCE BERESFORD

Mr. Beresford, whose "Black Robe" is now in theaters and winning great critical acclaim, is remarkable for his durability, his versatility, his skill as an actors' director and his brilliant way of transforming plays into magnificent films.

His "Breaker Morant" (1979) is not only one of the best adaptations of a play but also one of the Australian film masterpieces. It introduced us to a trio of marvelous actors: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown. Three Australian soldiers are put on trial in a criminally trumped-up court-martial. Based on fact. Unforgettable.

Other notable films by Mr. Beresford:

*"The Getting of Wisdom" (1980): The coming of age of a young girl at school in the 1800s. Based on the highly regarded Australian novel by Henry Handel Richardson.

*"Tender Mercies" (1983) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989): They would have to be considered American movies, and they won Academy Awards for Robert Duvall and Jessica Tandy, respectively.

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