The basic theme of this gritty urban drama — the reunion of long-separated siblings because a parent is mortally ill or has died — has become a tired cliche in Australian cinema, but Alan White’s striking debut feature manages to breathe fresh life into the material thanks to extremely fine camerawork and strong ensemble performances. The screenplay by first-timer Anik Chooney relies on deliberately banal dialogue, and “Erskineville Kings” has the feel of a theatrical piece transferred to the screen. Palace Films will have to pull out the stops to attract audiences to this niche entertainment, while overseas business looks limited to TV and ancillary, where, sadly, the beautiful, burnished images will lose much of their luster.
One of the most striking elements of the film is first-time d.p. John Swaffield’s remarkable lensing, and the choice of locations in the grimy inner suburbs of Sydney at the height of summer. Shot after shot is worthy of framing, as Swaffield’s beautifully composed images reveal decaying buildings, tattered posters, ancient graffiti (“Go Home Hippies!”) and narrow, mean, deserted streets on a very hot, still day. These run-down shops, bars and houses are a world away from the attractive harbor and downtown district of Sydney, although just as real.
Twenty-five-year-old Barky (scripter Chooney, using the pseudonym Marty Denniss) arrives at the city’s central rail station early one morning on a summer weekend. He’s been away for two years working in the cane fields up north and seems to be a bit of a lost soul. We soon learn that he left the family home to escape his drunken and abusive father, and has returned for Dad’s funeral. But first he wants to meet with his brother, Wace (Hugh Jackman), with whom he had a falling out when he left.
As he comes across various friends, including ex-girlfriend Lanny (Leah Vandenberg), Barky reveals more and more about himself and the oppressive world he left behind. But this is no prodigal son returning in triumph; if anything, Barky seems to have less now than he did when he went away.
The film is composed of apparently aimless conversations and encounters, all of which add to the viewer’s knowledge about Barky. Some may find the pacing extremely slow; director White, working from a wordy screenplay, is in no hurry to cut to the chase — something which, in any case, proves to be nonexistent.
There’s a generally strong ensemble cast of little-known actors, with the film’s only “name” actor, Jackman, making quite an impact as the bitter Wace. Denniss successfully connects with the tenuousness of Barky’s character, and Vandenberg is extremely sympathetic as the self-possessed Lanny.
Though made on a low budget of about A$ 500,000($ 326,000), and entirely unsupported byusual government funding bodies, “Erskineville Kings” is technically impressive on every level.