Tim Winton’s 2001 novel “Dirt Music” told the story of two haunted loners drawn into a bizarre love triangle in a remote fishing village on the coast of Western Australia. But the novel’s setting was always its most vibrant character, with Winton dissecting and eulogizing the gorgeous, harsh, mythical wildernesses of Australia’s largest state in expansive passages. In that sense, director Gregor Jordan’s adaptation is faithful to Winton’s novel to a fault, working hard to provide postcard-perfect views of Western Australia, while never seeming as engaged with the film’s characters, and here that proves a far bigger obstacle. Centered on characters who act without much in the way of logic, with much of its dialogue confined to clipped bursts of unsatisfying Hemingwayisms, “Dirt Music” is a fine-looking romance that never finds the right key.
The film largely focuses on Georgie (Kelly Macdonald), a former nurse trapped in a passionless marriage with Jim (David Wenham), an older, recently widowed fisherman who lords over the fictional town of White Point, worshiped by the salt-of-the-earth locals who barely deign to speak to his city-slicker wife. While skinny-dipping near their seaside mansion one evening, Georgie happens upon a fisherman scavenging for lobsters in a small motorboat, his dog left tied up on the beach. This is Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), a taciturn local outcast who once played in a family folk music band, driven by an unspecified tragedy to renounce music – “I don’t play anymore, I don’t even listen” – and eke out a meager living as an illegal poacher.
On her way to Perth a short time later, Georgie’s car breaks down, and she hardly seems surprised when Lu comes puttering up the road behind her. No sooner has she badgered him into giving her a lift into the city than she lays out her intentions: “I’m not a very faithful fishwife.” Lu barely registers the come-on, but allows himself to be drawn into a tryst with her anyway. It isn’t long before Jim discovers both the affair and Lu’s encroachment on his fishing territory.
As far as love triangles go, this one is initially low on acute angles. Jim barely seems surprised to learn that his wife has gone astray; Georgie appears to have very little tying her to her marriage or to the town; and Lu is too busy being haunted by his past to notice any of the trouble he’s causing, spending most of his scenes staring catatonically into the middle distance and holding imaginary conversations with his dead niece, Bird (Ava Caryoffylis).
After the local fisherman deal Lu some shockingly sadistic payback for poaching in their waters, Lu heads north for a particularly remote island off Australia’s northwestern coast, and Georgie decides to follow. It’s here that the film arrives at what should be its crescendo – with Lu hitchhiking toward his doom, Christopher McCandless-style, and Georgie racing to find him – and Jordan locks into a previously elusive rhythm. But these characters have been so hazily defined that the pulse-pounding finale, as well-executed as it is, never cuts as deep as it should. Though ably played by Macdonald, Georgie’s character loses the most in the transition from page to screen. We’re told she has a drinking problem, even though we’ve seen her get tipsy maybe once. And one scene in which she’s forced to visit her estranged wealthy family (scarcely mentioned before or after) is so bizarrely out of sync with the tone of the rest of the film that one wonders why the subplot wasn’t cut entirely.
Considering the abundance of marquee-name Aussie actors, it’s curious that such a quintessentially Australian film features an American (Hedlund) and a Scotswoman (Macdonald) in its two largest roles, but both do as well as they can with difficult characters. Yet the real stars here are the location scouts, who unearth such gorgeous vistas – from the emerald waters of Esperance to the almost extraterrestrial landscapes of the Dampier Peninsula – that one wouldn’t be surprised to see more film productions make the trek to Australia’s west coast, hopefully with more satisfying scripts in tow.