A gripping contempo drama set in the middle of the Australian wilderness, “Dead Heart” provides thought-provoking intrigue and suspense in a spectacular outdoor setting. It also is a notable showcase for co-producer Bryan Brown, in one of his best performances to date as a cop caught up in tribal aboriginal conflicts. Intelligent and timely, pic should find appreciative audiences around the world and fest exposure should drum up word of mouth for this classy item.
“Heart” was written by first-time director Nick Parsons as a screenplay for which he could find no backers; he then adapted the material into a successful play, and finally back into a screenplay again. Though the story is based on an incident that occurred in the 1930s, the themes of conflict between aborigines and whites are equally relevant today.
Wala Wala is a tiny community west of Alice Springs. White Australians refer to this barren red landscape as the country’s “dead heart,” but for aborigines this is a rich and spiritual place. Wala Wala, which consists of a school, church, police station (with jail) and a handful of brick huts, is the focal point for nomadic tribal aborigines from a wide area of this desert region and, although times are changing, traditions are still of vital importance.
Ray Lorkin (Brown) is a cop who represents white Australia’s law and order in this incredibly remote spot. He has always tried to bend the rules, and is basically a fair-minded man who works well with his aboriginal assistant, Billy (Lafe Charlton).
The only other whites are teacher Les (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), his bored wife Kate (Angie Milliken) and their two children, Charlie (John Jarratt), an anthropologist, and Sarah (Anne Tenney), a doctor. Prominent members of the aboriginal community are David (Ernie Dingo), the local pastor, who is friendly with Ray Tony (Aaron Pedersen), a rebellious young man who earns money smuggling illegal alcohol into the community, and Poppy (Gnarnayarrahe Waitaire), the local Elder.
The yarn, which is told in a framing story by Poppy to a pair of tribal men, involves a prisoner’s fatal hanging in Lorkin’s police cell. Tradition demands that revenge be taken, and Lorkin reluctantly allows Billy to be speared in the leg in a tribal ceremony.
Meanwhile, Tony and Kate are secretly having a passionate affair, and in a moment of foolish bravado, Tony selects, as the latest location for their liaison, an area sacred to members of his tribe. This seals his fate, and it’s Kate who discovers his dead but unmarked body.
Lorkin is convinced that Tony’s death is murder, and is determined the perpetrators shall be punished. But events take an unexpected turn, leading to a gripping climax.
Pic’s concerns are similar to those of Michael Apted’s commercially unsuccessful 1992 Native American drama “Thunderheart,” which, like “Dead Heart, ” was influenced by Western and thriller genres. On the whole, Parson’s film works better as drama and as character study.
The screenplay, which never betrays its theatrical origins, doesn’t shy away from the complex issues of white-black relationships in Central Australia. Lorkin and David are portrayed as being opposite sides of the coin; they are both caring men genuinely caught between two cultures.
Brown gives a strong, charismatic performance, and David is very well portrayed by Ernie Dingo. Milliken, who played Kate onstage, is vibrant as the recklessly besotted woman and shares a hot love scene with costar Aaron Pedersen , a brooding newcomer who also makes an impact here. Fitz-Gerald is on the button as the betrayed Les. Other actors are solid in more marginal roles.
Scenes in which the aboriginal characters communicate in the Arunda or Pintabi languages are subtitled in English, but some of the actors are hard to understand when they do speak English, so further subtitling might be advisable for international audiences.
James Bartles’ cinematography evokes the dry, dusty landscape with skill, and all other credits are pro.