John Shipton, with flowers for supporters, in Ithaka. Image courtesy Shipton House


M, 111 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury


Since Wikileaks, the organization he founded, sensationally uploaded hundreds of thousands of files of classified information to the internet, Julian Assange has lived his life in different forms of incarceration. It’s probably safe to say he could never have imagined how long it would last. In our divisive and contested times, he has become one of the world’s most famous fugitives, a political prisoner with British and US law enforcement in hot pursuit.

In this new documentary so deftly directed by Ben Lawrence and produced by Assange’s half-brother, Gabriel Shipton, we get the measure of the toll it is taking on the man. He has been on the run since 2010, however, his links to cybercrime have been on the record since 1991 in Australia.

As Assange, now 50, waits to hear the latest legal ruling that will shape his life, he is spending 23 hours a day in solitary in Belmarsh prison near London, where he has been since 2019.

Everyone knows, chapter and verse, what he did in the name of freedom of the press and our right to know. Who can forget the vision of journalists and civilians in Baghdad gunned down by an American military helicopter? It ignited support for Assange around the globe. The ethics of what Assange did have forever been obliterated by the revelation, and what his case represents has been hotly contested ever since.

A man who so resembles his son they could be siblings, with the same gift for language, and with a similar tendency to speak from time to time in riddles like an ancient seer

This is of course not the first film about Julian Assange, but it is the first about his father. John Shipton, a retired builder now inhabiting the world of ideas, who has made the release of his son a late life goal. To make the film, director Lawrence shared a flat with Shipton in England, a relationship of close proximity that has resulted in a revealing portrait of an enigmatic man, now 78 years old, who left his young family when Julian was a three-year-old, but reconnected with him in his twenties.

It is fascinating to meet Shipton, a man who so resembles his son they could almost be siblings. Not only are they alike physically, they have the same gift for language with a similar tendency to speak, from time to time, in riddles like an ancient seer.

The other prominent personality in the film is Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, an expert in international law, who was on one of his legal teams. She is similarly articulate and engaging.

After Assange fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for sanctuary in 2012 and became a long-stay guest, he could make appearances on the balcony, addressing the media and his supporters, and he could entertain guests like eminent barrister Geoffrey Robertson, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and singer Lady Gaga. It is where his relationship with Moris flourished and they now have two children. Since the Embassy called in the police, things have taken a more sinister turn for Assange in the high security prison environment, with reports of weight loss, depression and ideation of suicide.

Assange’s father, brother and wife now declare themselves spokespersons for Julian, who can no longer speak for himself. Assange only appears in historical images, with footage of him being carted into a police van, talking to high-profile visitors, riding a skateboard, or seen in photos as a one-time physics student at university. Otherwise, he is just a disembodied voice or fleeting image on Stella’s smartphone.

The poem Ithaka, and film’s title, hint broadly at the type of relationship the two men have had

If Assange is the world’s most famous political prisoner, as the promotion for Ithaka asserts, then we have lost sight of Alex Navalny in Russia. Julian himself has never seemed averse to hyperbole, but whatever views we have about the man and what he does, it’s now the bigger issues that matter more. He has already paid a heavy price.

Besides the questions of human rights, press freedom and freedom of speech that Ithaka wants us to consider, there is a fascinating portrait of Julian’s father here. A one-sided relationship, as we don’t hear directly from Julian at any point, but a read of the poem, Ithaka, that inspired the film’s title, hints broadly at the type of relationship the two of them have had.

This is a fascinating in-depth study of Assange as he is reflected in the awards bestowed, and the people and the eminent organisations that have rallied around him.

First published in the Canberra Times on 23 April 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes