The producers and funding bodies behind “The Furnace” took quite a chance when they agreed to back Roderick MacKay in his debut feature, yet clearly the young writer-director knows how to sell his vision just as well as he knows how to make a movie. Set in the deserts of Western Australia in the late 19th century, this ambitious, ethnically diverse and visually dramatic Western about an Afghani camel driver and a hard-bitten gold thief in the outback is a classic oater on every level, reminiscent of the more sensitive Westerns of the 1970s in which natives are accorded dignity and depth and moral quandaries aren’t black and white. Premiering in the Horizons section at Venice, the film combines racial sensitivity with good old-fashioned storytelling, which should be a winning competition on big screens at home but also abroad.
It opens in 1897, when a title explains that Western Australia was crisscrossed by camel caravans whose drivers, brought by the British largely from Afghanistan, India and Persia, ensured the transportation of goods across the punishing desert. Unlike the white settlers, these predominantly Muslim, Sikh and Hindu traders developed close relations with the indigenous population whose knowledge of the terrain was vital for survival. Young Afghani Hanif Gilal Abdullah (Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek) works with Jundah (Kaushik Das), his good-natured Sikh foreman, and together they’ve formed a close bond with Woorak (Baykall Ganambarr) and his tribe, even communicating in the aboriginal language, Badimaya. One day a racist settler shoots Jundah dead, and Hanif stumbles upon the bodies of massacred Chinese men alongside Mal Riley (David Wenham), a severely wounded white man of the potentially venomous ’49er type — the kind Walter Huston would have played.
Mal’s carrying stolen gold bars, though he can’t do anything with them because they’re stamped with an identifying crown; he needs to get them to a furnace so they can be melted down and reformed. Given his injuries, making a partnership with Hanif and his camels is the only way he’ll be able to get the bars to a smelter he knows, yet neither is willing to trust the other. For Hanif, exhausted by unrewarding years in the outback, a share in the ill-gotten loot could get him out of Australia and back home, so he hesitantly agrees to take Mal. Gold of course never brought anyone luck in a Western, and they’ve got the army on their tails, led by short-tempered Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan).
Does “The Furnace” engage in hoary tropes? You bet it does, but that’s built into the DNA of every Western. So sure, there’s the hard-bitten gold thief, the exaggerated stereotype of an army sergeant, and the naive younger man whose good heart will be tested. There’s no superfluous love interest — they were always tacked on anyway — but there’s also no Caucasian savior on a white steed. In ways similar to the Jordanian epic “Theeb,” the film acknowledges its influences and then shifts in another direction, in this case foregrounding the experience of immigrants in a harsh colonialist environment who band together to find relief from murderous racism.
There’s nothing hidden here, and little that’s subtle: MacKay makes no secret of his intentions, which are to expand the history books and ensure that a suppressed chapter in his country’s development be acknowledged. This goes not just for the contributions made by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu caravan drivers to Australia’s development, but even more for the friendships they made with aboriginal people, brought together by the contempt of European descendants. Recent Australian films about indigenous populations tend to legitimately focus on the hardships of life in a racist society; here there’s something gratifying about seeing communication and mutual respect between multi-ethnic communities, and even if it feels almost too P.C. to be true, that too aligns with the formulaic nature of Westerns.
To a non-linguist’s ears, the shifts between the multiple languages sound completely natural, and the use of the critically endangered Badimaya language acts as a minor bulwark against its extinction. Wenham’s flea-bitten, hardened codger makes the right contrast with rising star Malek’s deeply sympathetic figure, who quietly projects sensitivity roughed-up by misfortune, kindness coated in melancholy. They’re really the only two characters who develop, but that too is part of the canonic equation, and in this case just the positive acknowledgment of difference goes a long way toward making “The Furnace” an enjoyably absorbing experience.
Cinematographer Michael McDermott clearly used classic Westerns as his visual references, taking advantage of the spaces afforded by widescreen to fully display the landscape’s majestic variations. It’s refreshing to watch a Western that’s not subjugated by an over-intrusive score.