Chosen to open the 50th Sydney Film Festival, “The Honourable Wally Norman” is a fitfully amusing would-be laffer about a little guy who gets elected to Parliament. This retro affair avoids almost every opportunity for pungent satire, concentrating instead on an approach to comedy closer to the more lightweight Ealing offerings than to the more pungent Frank Capra of “State of the Union.” The presence of a couple of popular local players, including Kevin Harrington from “The Dish,” may be enough to turn “Wally” into a modest local success, but the film has little chance for meaningful overseas exposure. Its best prospects are down the line in ancillary.
Fest programmers tend to believe that something undemanding is required for opening night, when the house is stacked with politicians and local personalities, hence the frequent selection of bland pics, like this year’s Cannes opener, “Fanfan la Tulipe.” Much the same is true of “Wally Norman,” a modestly amiable, but far from outstanding, film which doesn’t really benefit from the anticipation of a festival opening slot.
The topic of an ordinary bloke from the countryside standing up against manipulative city slickers and politicos has long tradition in Oz; in 1940, Ken G. Hall’s “Dad Rudd M.P.” provided a scnario somewhat similar to that of the new picture. With a difficult agricultural economy in Australia at the moment, the themes of “Wally Norman” are nothing if not timely. It’s just a pity that they’re not addressed with more wit and more bite.
The setting is the small town of Givens Head, where the local economy depends on a meat processing plant. Among the workers are the eponymous Wally Norman (Harrington), who lives a reasonably contented life with his wife (Roz Hammond), teenage daughter, Laura (Octavia Barron-Martin) and son (Tom Budge). Meanwhile, a federal election looms and, Givens Head is the seat which will decide which government rules in Canberra: the ultra-conservative Total Country Party (TCP) or the mildly conservative Australian Peoples Party (APP). The current sitting member is the TCP’s appalling Ken Oats (Shaun Micallef), a smooth operator not only corrupt but uncaring of the problems of his constituents. Opposing him is amiable but alcoholic grassroots populist Willy Norman (Alan Cassell).
Naturally, an inebriated Willy mistakenly fills in Wally’s name name on the form applying to stand as a Member of Parliament, and since the mistake can’t be changed, it’s Wally who finds himself on the hustings.
Screenwriters Andrew Jones and Rick Kalowski have come up with a serviceable premise, but more work should have been done to beef up the material and make it genuinely pungent and clever; the endless off-color jokes on the name of the town are proof of the general poverty of original wit. Experienced TV comedy director Ted Emery only goes through the motions.
It’s left to the actors to carry the material, which some of them manage to do with flair. Harrington is a winning personality who brings life to a fairly stereotypical creation, while Cassell and Micallef are funny as veteran politicians with a healthy disdain for the voters. Amusing, too, are TV personalities Bryan Dawe, as a TV anchorman who covers the election, and Greg Pickhaver as the chairman of the APP; however, the TV fans of these two expert comedians might have expected them to have been given better material to work with.
Production values are fine on what is presumably a relatively modest budget.