The tangled tale of Aboriginal relations in Australia is rendered richly personal in director Rolf de Heer’s 14th dramatic feature, “Charlie’s Country.” Anchored by the charismatic, tragicomic performance of indigenous icon David Gulpilil, a veteran of “Walkabout,” “The Last Wave,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” plus de Heer’s “The Tracker” and “Ten Canoes,” this atmospheric and cautionary tale of a “Blackfella” caught between two cultures has all the makings of a solid arthouse performer.
The irony of the title is soon made clear. “You white bastard!” Charlie (Gulpilil) calls almost affectionately to the policeman Luke (Luke Ford) in the small Northern Territory Aboriginal community he calls home, only to get the inevitable response of “you black bastard.” But as Charlie goes about his daily tasks, it soon becomes clear he is chafing against the encroaching white laws that increasingly separate him from his traditions. His friends are faring no better, as he runs afoul of the law with buddy Black Pete (co-producer Peter Djigirr) and listens to Old Lulu (Peter Minygululu) talk about preserving authentic dance culture.
When Luke confiscates a spear Charlie spent some time fashioning, it drives him further into the bush in an attempt to reconnect with the traditional Aboriginal way of living (he is undone by the most mundane of events, a chilly and relentless rain). After falling in with a group of homeless Aboriginals in Darwin who drink and smoke weed constantly (“long grassers,” as they’re known), Charlie is arrested and incarcerated. In a stunning real-time sequence, his thick mane of hair and full beard are shorn, thus completing his isolation and loss of freedom.
Charlie is the vessel through which de Heer navigates these turbulent waters, and the script was developed during sessions when the actor would throw out ideas and the director would structure the results. It is to both men’s credit that amid the suffering, there’s a ray of hope for Charlie in the end.
Since his 1971 debut at 16 in Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” Gulpilil has developed into an actor capable of mischievousness and gravitas, often within the same shot. His well-publicized bouts with alcoholism and the law haven’t significantly tarnished his reputation, and represent the embodiment of the societal tensions addressed in the film. So, too, the Dutch-born de Heer has built a solid reputation as a filmmaker not so much fascinated as moved to modest yet probing action by social friction and injustice (his earliest major success, 1993’s “Bad Boy Bubby,” was the first of four of his films to be selected by Cannes).
The tech package is seamless. Ian Jones’ widescreen photography immerses the viewer in the Australian outback, while Graham Tardif’s plaintive score emphasizes both the dignity and the anguish of Charlie’s all-too-common plight.