- Colin Fraser
TWO STARS Lu's been poaching crayfish from Jim, then he steals his girlfriend Georgie. It can't end well.
Garet Hedlund, Kelly MacDonald, David Wenham
There’s little doubt that Tim Winton’s DIRT MUSIC is one of Australia’s most loved novels. There’s also no doubt that Gregor Jordan’s DIRT MUSIC is one of Australia’s more disappointing films.
Jordan’s the guy that gave us three terrific movies in TWO HANDS, BUFFALO SOLDIERS and NED KELLY. Tim Winton is, well, Tim Winton, a national treasure. Leaving aside the curious choice of casting Scottish and American talent in the key roles - the formidable Kelly MacDonald (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and Garrett Hedlund (ON THE ROAD) are a source of star power. Likewise co-lead David Wenham. The screenwriter is Jack Thorne who penned the much loved WONDER. Craig Armstrong (MOULIN ROUGE) wrote the score. Sam Chiplin held the camera, though in truth he didn’t have to do much considering the glorious West Australian outback punched well above its considerable weight.
You’ll see where I’m heading with this. Considering how much big talent went into crafting this production, how could something so small come out the other end? It’s a mystery, yet Winton’s soaring novel has been reduced to a mere trifle, a romance that might shine briefly on Hallmark but would be lost on any other streaming service (its inevitable fate). Gone is the emotional grit, the page-turning heft of his characters, the alluring menace of the West Australian landscape. In its place are inaccessible characters, pretty beaches and tourist-ready imagery.
The story focuses on the collapsing relationship between Georgie (MacDonald) and Jim (Wenham), a forceful player in the sleepy fishing town of White Point, WA. Despondent, Georgie takes up with Lu Fox (Hedlund), a man who has history with Jim, first poaching his catch and now his girlfriend. There’s more, of course, events that pull the past into the present, and propel the couple into desolate corners of northern Western Australia. It’s here that Winton’s faith is felt as ‘destiny’ shapes their actions and ‘miracles’ shape their future. It’s not forceful, but there if you’re looking.
This points, indirectly, to what makes Dirt Music so good, and DIRT MUSIC so disappointing. There’s an indirectness about the way Winton makes his points. His purpose reveals itself in more subtle ways than dialogue and action. It’s about what goes unsaid, or how underlying menace is portrayed through the landscape’s endless veiled threats. Little of this makes its way into the film, where Lu’s back-story is told in a muddled series of flashbacks or the abundant, super-wide panorama’s could be repurposed by Tourism WA. They’re not in the slightest bit threatening, and they need to be.
The film becomes a passionless exercise in romantic drama, virtually excised of the subtlety and fine texture that makes the text so well loved. Add the distracting choice of MacDonald and Hedlund (they’re good but seriously, did foreign funding bodies have that much control over casting decisions that we couldn’t go local?), and the weight of poor choices comes crashing in.
For the record, the title refers to music you can play on a verandah without amplification. Although it’s relevant, you’ll be past caring long before you work it out.