Friday 25 December 2009

The Last Wave (1977)

Director: Peter Weir
Stars: Richard Chamberlain and Olivia Hamnett
It's somehow strange to see how much work Peter Weir has done in the west, even though I've seen a good deal of his American films. Those that I've seen have been good ones, a versatile bunch from Witness through Dead Poets Society to The Truman Show, but there's nothing that leaps out to bind them together beyond the director's name on the credits. I still think of Weir as an Australian, an Australian filmmaker who told very Australian stories in a very Australian way. Sure, Gallipoli was a noisy thing, at least that's what I remember from when I saw it as a kid, but films like The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave are quiet, thoughtful, quirky, stylish, surreal, hallucinatory pictures. This is why he was at the forefront of the new wave of Australian cinema in the early to mid 1970s. I wonder what he'd have told if he'd stayed in Oz.

This one begins with the weather, which is more than a little freaky, well beyond the heavy rain that the cities are experiencing. At one school out in the countryside the kids are outside happily playing cricket even though the wind is picking up. Even they notice that when the thunder starts roaring there isn't a cloud in the sky. Then the rain starts, coming down in buckets, only to quickly turn into hail by the time they get inside. It's still hot and sunny but huge chunks of ice are hammering their way through the roof into their classroom. This would be strange anywhere but for rural Australia it's utterly bizarre. These kids have never seen hail before.

The star of the show is Richard Chamberlain, playing an American lawyer in Sydney called David Burton. Chamberlain's first leading role on the big screen was as a lawyer, but that was in Twilight of Honor and he had the able assistance of Claude Rains to win a case nobody thought could be won. Here he's pretty much on his own and he's up against something far more bizarre than mere bigotry and local importance. There are two reasons that it's strange, neither of which have anything to do with the very 70s manliness that he exudes, something like a geeky and cultured David Hasselhoff. He prances around as if to subtly advertise his manliness in whatever he does, but otherwise comes across more like a librarian or a computer programmer. Think an unclumsy version of Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent.
One of the reasons is that he's been having strange dreams, dreams that trouble him. He's always dreamed, even as a kid when he saw taxi drivers stealing the souls from people's bodies and taking them on long journeys, returning them in the morning to wake up exhausted. Now he's dreaming about an aborigine appearing to him out of the night, somewhat reminiscent of an alien from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but looking more like Rick James with a strange triangular rock. He's David Gulpilil, of course, that aboriginal actor who tends to play all the great aboriginal roles on film, from 1971's Walkabout through Crocodile Dundee to last year's Australia.

The other reason is that the case he's about to fight has nothing to do with the sort of specialities that a corporate tax lawyer tends to have, instead being a murder case involving Aborigines. Apparently five of them had a fight with Billy Corman in a pub, pushed him down and he subsequently drowned in a puddle, though we're set up from moment one to believe it really isn't as simple as that. Four of them are Jerry, Jacko, Lindsey and Larry and the fifth is Chris Lee, the Rick James lookalike that David has been seeing in his dreams. He invites Chris to dinner and he brings an artist with him, a man named Charlie who doesn't speak English and who is very interested in David and his family.

And so it seems that the two reasons are one and the same because dreams are a huge part of Aboriginal culture, given that everything was created during the Dreaming and a separate reality runs parallel to our own called the Dreamtime: Heaven, Creation and the Great Mother all in one and then some. Burton isn't even Australian let alone aboriginal, but he ties into this mythology somehow. The film is less about the murder case and more about the tribal nature of these Sydney Aborigines who have successfully concealed that they are even part of a tribe, let alone that something is coming, something huge, inevitable and massively important that David is intrinsically part of.

The Last Wave is fascinating to watch but it takes quite some time for the various pieces in this puzzle to fall into place, if they ever really do, and until then the story leaves us pretty much as confused as David Burton seems to be most of the time. Expecting a legal story, albeit an unconventional one, I'm still not sure what I actually saw. It's a thriller, a chiller, a metaphysical exploration that is as much journey as story. Peter Weir, who directed and co-wrote the story, explained that it came out of a question: 'What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?' And here's the key, because the last wave is really just a huge and devastating MacGuffin. This is about man attempting to come to terms with something he can't understand, whether that man be David Burton or Peter Weir or me.

At least I think so. I'll be back for a second viewing on this one for sure. Maybe it'll make more sense then. Maybe not. Maybe that's the point.

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