Three fine Australian films appeared in 1999: Praise, Feeling Sexy and Erskineville Kings. Director Alan White's feature debut – after a decade of making commercials – is a welcome surprise in many respects. Above all, it is a captivating and moving drama.
Despite the cries of all those who argue that we should be making internationalist genre films – and despite the occasional triumph of this kind, like Mad Max (1979) and Kiss or Kill (1997) – Australian cinema can still work wonders with very local, naturalistic, character-based stories. Erskineville Kings is in the tradition of films by Ray Argall (Return Home, 1990) and Brian McKenzie (Stan and George's New Life, 1992).
The tale has a classical, understated simplicity. Barky (Marty Denniss) returns to his home turf of Erskineville to attend his father's funeral. The fact that he previously ran out on his local friends and family responsibilities is a problem for his old flame, Lanny (Leah Vandenberg), and especially for his brother, Wace (pre-stardom Hugh Jackman).
This is a story of unfinished business, played out within a strictly circumscribed space and time. Barky and Wace are headed for a confrontation, but the tensions between them are always mediated through the presence of their mates, the lovable drongo Trunny (Aaron Blabey) and the quietly wise Coppa (Andrew Whalley). It is essentially a male story, but Lanny offers a sharp, alternative perspective.
Aussie manhood is indeed the issue here – as it has been in such movies as Idiot Box (1996), Blackrock (1997) and The Boys (1998). Thankfully, White does not trot out the familiar, bleeding-heart truisms about the repression, aggression and potential psychosis lurking within average guys. Although the film explores tough questions and difficult emotions, it is a warm, affectionate portrait of men who actually manage to survive, relate and grow.
The film makes a virtue of its low budget. White adopts a highly composed camera style and subdued colour-scheme that gives the drama an aura of silence, stillness and melancholy. There may be a few too many shots of run-down Erskineville houses and shops, and a slightly jarring absence of anybody in town except the main characters – but even these elements help, ultimately, to focus and cohere the work.
The actors are superb, and White weaves from them a faultless ensemble. Denniss captures wonderfully a mixture of ordinariness, introspection and intense pain. Whalley – tall, lanky, watchful, always ready to defuse an angry situation – gives soulful presence to what is nominally a secondary character. And Jackman is a revelation: his role comes closest to the blocked-Aussie-male cliché, but the performance mines hidden depths and motivations.
© Adrian Martin September 1999