High Ground

MA15+, 105 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

High Ground has been a long time in the making. Twenty years, the filmmakers say. People like David Gulpilil were once attached to the project. It world-premiered in Berlin just before Covid hit, then had to wait out the year as the cinema release stalled.

It is well worth the wait. A collaboration between Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land and top film creatives brought together under the direction of Stephen Maxwell Johnson, a filmmaker who hails from the Top End.

The immensity of the controversial task at hand – a drama set during the frontier wars in the 1930s – could have robbed it of essential dramatic tension, of narrative drive. A couple of the actors do overplay their hand but the film’s objectives in depicting both Indigenous and settler point-of-view is achieved, overall.

Furthermore, High Ground is rich with moments of sensuous beauty and power. Not since Rolf de Heer’s memorable Ten Canoes of 2006 have we been so completely immersed among the magpie geese, the paperbark eucalypts, the pandanus and the crocodiles of Arnhem Land.

There is irreverent humour too. The screenplay is the work of Chris Anastassiades. He was the screenwriter for Johnson’s first film, Yolngu Boy in 2001, and is also responsible for The Wog Boy and assorted other comedic adventures.

it takes a risk with a young unknown in a key role

Andrew Commis (Babyteeth, Beautiful Kate) wields the camera, BAFTA and Oscar-nominated editor Jill Bilcock has presided in the editing suite. Talent in front of camera includes the familiar faces of Aaron Pedersen and Simon Baker. Jack Thompson is there too.

Jacob Junior Nayingull in High Ground

At the same time, High Ground takes a risk with a young unknown in a lead role.

Jacob Junior Nayingull who plays opposite star of the international screen, Simon Baker, is surely set to become the new Gulpilil. This is the first appearance in a feature film for the young man who works as a ranger in East Arnhem Land. Graceful in his movements, a natural on horseback, nuanced in his facial expressions and with a beautiful, strong face, Nayingull is a tremendous find.

The film’s opening sequences at a secluded waterhole set the tragic events in train. It becomes apparent a group of Aborigines is being scoped by a distant sniper, and the mood flips to menace. The subsequent police raid is bungled, leaving many dead and one child orphaned. Travis (Simon Baker), from the raiding party, hands the boy over to Christian missionaries.

The narrative then jumps 12 years to 1931. It has relocated to the East Alligator River area, where Gutjuk (Nayingull now in the role) has been brought up by Father Braddock (Ryan Corr) and his sister, Claire (Caren Pistorius).

Travis comes back into the young man’s life when the authorities instruct the former policeman-turned-bounty hunter to track down a renegade mob of Aborigines. They are led by Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) an uncle of Gutjuk’s who also survived the family massacre. Gutjuk will be used as ‘bait’ to bring Baywara in.

The scene that speaks to the title of the film takes place on the summit of a rocky outcrop with a 360 degree view of the floodplains, savanna and sandstone tors of Kakadu. While we swoon at the glorious views from Commis’ camera, we hear Gutjuk getting instructions on how to shoot from the former World War I sniper, Travis.

To occupy the high ground means you control everything, it’s what you want to aim for, he says, ever invoking the language of war. The expression, of course, need not be applied in this sense, and invites other interpretations.

intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged

Whose justice will Baywara face if he is captured? Gutjuk’s grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika, co-founder of the breakout Indigenous rock band, Yothu Yindi) lends his dignity and presence to the scenes that involve a fierce debate about the law. Should First Nation or Balanda (white man) law apply to Baywara?

Simon Baker in High Ground

Johnson is likely better known for his direction of Yothu Yindi music clips than he ever was for his first fiction feature, Yolngu Boy. Yes, the famous track Treaty was directed by him.

High Ground will surely change all that for the director. His new film, more outback western than thriller, is more arthouse than genre, despite his intentions. It is intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged and a stunning reminder of the magnificence of the natural world.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 January 2021

*Featured image: Jacob Junior Nayingull and Simon Baker in High Ground

Brazen Hussies

M, 93 minutes

5 Stars

Review by ©  Jane Freebury



Brilliantly put together, this important doco tells a story about social justice for women that’s a likely eye-opener for millenials

When a couple of women chained themselves to the footrails in a Brisbane bar in 1965, it was a sign that something new was afoot. It was at the time illegal to serve alcohol to females in a public bar.

Women could order a soft drink or sit in their husband’s car and drink a beer, but it was illegal for them to join male customers for a drink inside. Unbelievable.

The men at the bar had their say that day, and the state justice minister had his: the women would ‘get over’ it. Although the media also trivialised the serious intent behind the protest, it was an early defining moment for the women’s liberation movement in Australia.

A decade of campaigns, feminist publications and consciousness raising groups later, International Women’s Year activities were receiving generous funding from the Commonwealth. And, with the appointment of Elizabeth Reid in 1973, Australia became the first country in the world with a female advisor to the government on women’s affairs.

The decade of dramatic change, 1965 to 1975, is framed by writer-director Catherine Dwyer in this outstanding documentary, her first feature. Brazen Hussies is a great story and a terrific achievement, amusing, insightful and entertaining.

An impressive crew of creatives, including editor Rose Jones, collaborated with the filmmaker in production. Producers of note, Sue Maslin and Philippa Campey, were also on board.

After working on She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry of 2014, Mary Dore’s doco history of the women’s movement in the US, Dwyer was drawn to tell the story of second wave feminism in this country. An untold story. It would be for the record, and it would show young women of today the social change that their mothers and grandmothers witnessed during their lifetime.

their young selves, clear-eyed and articulate, fired up and driving things forward

After some scene-setting of movie clips from Hollywood movies with the familiar idealised image of the housewives in the 1950s, Brazen Hussies roars into life.

There are lively and compelling interviews with twenty five or so women, including Elizabeth Reid herself, who experienced those heady times and share unique insights. It is fascinating seeing vision of their young selves, clear-eyed and articulate, fired up and driving things forward.

Former union activist, Zelda D’Aprano, recalls how she chained herself to the doors of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in protest over the inadequacy of its equal pay ruling. In 1969 it was just the beginning.

Writer and columnist, Anne Summers, recalls how as a graduate new to the ABC, she earned less than the male trainees with high school qualifications.

Jurist Pat O’Shane, the first Indigenous graduate in Australia, discusses how Indigenous women responded to the movement. A complicated story.

Eva Cox, Martha Ansara, Jeni Thornley, Margot Nash, Gillian Leahy, Barbara Creed, Suzanne Bellamy also appear. It is no surprise that many of these activist women went on to careers in journalism, media, filmmaking, academia, law and politics.

There is also a brief archival footage of my late mother, Julia Freebury, who campaigned for abortion law reform. Abortion was illegal then, only married women could access the pill and there was no pension support for single mothers.

many young women became converts to feminism, just ‘like that’

Another chapter in the history of the women’s movement was the beginnings of developments in gay liberation. With the anti-war movement in top gear, 1965-75 was a time of such incredible foment.

In 1970 a slight young female student stepped up to speak at a moratorium demonstration on the front lawn at Sydney University. She and fellow Labor Club women were fed up with being held back, expected to do the menial tasks and never allowed a platform to speak. At the response of young men in the crowd to her inflammatory speech, many young women became converts to feminism, just ‘like that’.

The reaction of those young men to the women’s movement, especially young men of the Left, is shocking. Were they only waiting for ‘the revolution’, not interested in social justice for women?

So much has been achieved since then. Women don’t have to leave the public service when they marry, they can take out a loan on their own to buy property, and can stand at the bar and order beer instead of soft drink. And ASIO won’t open a dossier on them if they go out and burn their bra.

Cheers, and goodbye to all that!

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 November 2020

Images courtesy State Library of NSW

The Trial of the Chicago 7

MA15+, 129 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a wildly ambitious film, compact and fast-paced over two hours. If wordy and a touch self-important, it is brilliantly written and performed, and the result is riveting.

It could easily have been a television miniseries. The backstory, for a start, is immense.

protesters singled out by a corrupt justice system to be taught a lesson

It’s about events that took place in 1968, at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, as the anti-war movement gathered momentum. A group of men who were leaders of various groups of protesters were singled out by a corrupt justice system to be taught a lesson.

Early in the year, the draft call had doubled and the country was reeling from the daily death count. The 1968 Democratic Convention in August was a magnet for anti-Vietnam protesters of all stripes.

Chicago battened down, refusing permission for protest in its precincts, except for a space in one of the city parks. The police were out in force, 12,000 of them, the National Guard and others too.

History remembers the ‘seven’, but there were originally eight men on trial: Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. The seven were represented by William Kunstler, played by the wonderful British actor, Mark Rylance.

Seale (Yaya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panthers, who was  unrepresented, was subjected to particular humiliation in court, gagged and handcuffed at the judge’s orders. Then the case against him was made separate, and charges against him, and Froines and Weiner were later dropped.

As a result of the riots that took place, these leaders of protesters who had bussed into Chicago were charged with ‘conspiracy to cross State lines in order to incite violence’. The trial before Justice Hoffman (Frank Langella) lasted six months, and his courtroom became a stage for the contest of ideas between Left and Right.

The prosecution was in trouble from the start. The charges that were brought against the group of men were not clearly indictable.

Then a key question emerged. Who had started the riots in the first place? The focus turned to the police.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin (the writer behind The West Wing and The Social Network) has managed somehow to wrangle the unwieldy details and present a coherent, tight narrative flipping between flashbacks to the protests and the courtroom setting presided over by Hoffman.

His screenplay was ready to shoot in 2007, with Steven Spielberg to direct, but production stalled. It was revived in 2018, at the halfway point of Trump’s presidency. The producers sensed the time was right and greenlighted the project.

And Sorkin, having shown what he could do as a director on Molly’s Game, would direct.

Sacha Baron Cohen was the only actor initially cast who was still attached to the project from 2007. Good thing too. His character Abbie Hoffman, a founding member of the Yippies and closely associated with Flower Power movement, is one of the most interesting.

It is good to see that the creator of the inimitable Borat and Ali G demonstrate that his range extends to characters who might melt into everyday society.

Tom Hayden, Eddie Redmayne in the role, a co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, was a different breed of social activist altogether. He went on to serve in electoral politics, but is perhaps best known for once being married to Jane Fonda.

It is a tad disappointing that some of the more of the more theatrical aspects of the actual trial are left out. Those performances that contributed to the occasion dubbed the ‘Academy Awards’ for protest movements.

it’s a reminder that the US has been there before

‘Cultural witnesses’ who attended the trial, like Arlo Guthrie and Norman Mailer, don’t get a showing, though beat poet Allen Ginsberg does make a brief appearance. Perhaps Sorkin thought there were distractions enough from his serious intent.

For lots of reasons, many of them bad but some good, 1968 in the US is a year to remember. The Smithsonian calls it ‘the year that shattered America’.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the beginning of Richard Nixon’s presidency were low points. But the civil rights movement swelled, and the tide turned against continuing the war in Vietnam.

This terrific film is a  reminder, a half century on, that however divided and partisan the US looks now, it has been there before.

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 October 2020. Broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Feature image: For Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) democracy had its place in the classroom. Courtesy Netflix


with pitch-perfect performances all round, this is a beautifully crafted drama about a teenager’s last fling at life

M, 118 Minutes

Dendy, Palace Electric

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Babyteeth has more than a few things going for it, including a terrific ensemble cast, cinematographer and director. Yet this family drama about a teenager with terminal cancer risks meeting a bit of resistance from audiences who may decide the subject is not for them.

It really shouldn’t deter them. This is an outstanding new Australian film, not to be missed. The director Shannon Murphy has suddenly emerged as an exciting new talent whose name appears on Variety’s top ten directing talents to watch in 2020.

Up to this point, Murphy has been making short films and working in television, here and overseas. She has distinguished herself on the hit television series Killing Eve, directing two recent episodes, balancing the droll, bleak humour and bizarre goings-on with great aplomb. I thought the way she handled Villanelle’s return visit to the family home in a Russian backwater hit just the right notes.

Babyteeth, her feature film debut, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, is never less than pitch perfect either. It’s about sixteen-year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) who is receiving treatment for a rare cancer that will kill her. But she is still out and about. She continues to attend school, when she feels up to it, and her violin classes, and has her sights on the school formal.

Set during the time when the Finlay family prepares for impending loss, Babyteeth balances the joy and the fear, the grim with the humorous, and the mundane and the fantastical in life’s contradictions.

In the film’s arresting opening scenes, Milla is standing at the railway station one day, minding her own business, when a young bloke slams into her, giving her a nose bleed. After gallantly wiping her face with the shirt off his back, Moses (Toby Wallace) is in the next instant asking for money. She hands over $50.

What’s more, she takes Moses home to meet the parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna Finlay (Essie Davis). The visit culminates in a droll dinner scene with the two couples sitting opposite each other at table. If it wasn’t weird enough, Anna has mixed up her meds and is high.

Ben Mendelsohn in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films

Moses quickly recognises an opportunity. It isn’t long before he is back, performing a break-and-enter to help himself to the prescription drugs that psychiatrist Henry prescribes and Anna uses.

her parents are trapped but relent, against their better judgement

Milla’s parents are trapped. They want to protect their vulnerable, fragile daughter but at the same time they want to allow her the chance to experience life. They capitulate to Milla’s wishes and, against their better judgement, invite Moses in.

In every conceivable way, the young, drug-dealing petty crim would appear to be a dreadful companion for Milla, but she is determined to have him around. The relationship develops through various stages, announced with inter-titles suggestive of diary entries, and Moses begins to reveal a better self.

It takes a special directorial talent to tell a story like this, and special skills to bring out the best in all the actors, each so individual, in this ensemble piece.

Toby Wallace and Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films

It is a good to see Emily Barclay (Suburban Mayhem) make an appearance as the very pregnant young mother who lives across the street from the Finlays. Her dog is always going missing, she always seems to be eating an ice cream and her function is to hint at the fragility in the Finlays’ marriage.

as married partners, Davis and Mendelsohn are beautifully matched

Essie Davis (recently in The True History of the Kelly Gang) and Ben Mendelsohn (an international star ever since Animal Kingdom) are beautifully matched as married partners. Wallace and Scanlen (Little Women) are also marvellous together as the two fragile young people. All the lead performances are superb, though I would have to say that Mendelsohn excels himself once again.

The ensemble cast is one thing, but Babyteeth would not be the film it is without the contribution of cinematographer Andrew Commis (Beautiful Kate, The Rocket)

Whether his camera is rolling in tight, intimate close up or goes wide to take in the night lights of Sydney or a virgin beachscape, the beauty and poignancy of his images was constantly telling. The camera pausing on the eggshell of Milla’s perfect, shaven head said so much.

Babyteeth had its world premiere in official competition at the Venice International Film Festival last year. It’s one of the best Australian films we have seen in some time.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 July 2020

Featured image: Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth.  Courtesy IFC Films

For Sama

MA15+, 84 minutes

Dendy Canberra Centre

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This documentary is a letter for a little girl who was born during the conflict in Syria and now lives with her parents in London. She grows up on film, smiling occasionally but with that look infants can have, taking it in.

When the conflict began her mother, Waad al-Kateab, had all but completed economics studies at Aleppo University. She became a citizen reporter instead, via the camera on her mobile, sending images of the attacks on civilians to the media overseas. As the rebellion gathered strength, her eye-witness accounts were filmed on a video camera, but lose none of their immediacy.

Aleppo University is the second oldest in Syria, after Damascus University where Assad obtained his own degree in medicine. Students became radicalised after a bombing during the exam period in 2013.

For Sama is shot from a different type of frontline. Not the place from which despatches from war are usually sent, like the location of David Bradbury’s classic 1981 documentary Front Line, but from her home at the hospital where her husband Hamza works.

It was probably just as dangerous, in a hospital in the rebel-held area of Aleppo getting bombed by the Russian planes sent in to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A new graduate in medicine, Hamza, was one one of a few doctors who remained in rebel-held territory where schools were closed and emergency and essential services non-existent. His first wife had fled the country to safety, but Hamza stayed on, deeply committed to the cause.

The university bombings were swiftly followed by a massacre of handcuffed civilians, a warning to the rebels who were shocked by the lengths the regime would go to stay in power.

As Waad tells her little daughter in the voiceover, she and husband Hamza had no idea their old lives would be swept away that year. Her parents had wanted her to leave Aleppo and return home, but she is ‘headstrong’. She is also rather lively and attractive. Easy to fall for, it’s no wonder Hamza did.

However, for Hamza, the loss of friends made it even more important to go on. Could Waad do that too? She had begun crying while doctors were trying to save the life of a boy. Hamza tells her off, he can’t bear to see her break down.  And can’t she tell he is in love with her?

It’s one hell of a proposal, but the marriage takes place with Waad and Hamza pledging to walk the road to freedom together. It’s a Christian wedding, complete with confetti, in a safe room, when they were still sure they would win in the end.

Soon the celebrations are overlain with more destruction and atrocity. Two little boys bring their brother in to the hospital, a life hanging by a thread.

On another occasion, a pregnant woman wounded by shrapnel, is brought in. Caesarean section is performed, then eye-watering attempts made to save the young life. Hamza is by now in charge of what amounts to an ED that takes nearly 300 patients a day.

Searing footage is captured by Waad, but there are also moments of sharp contrast, such as planting a garden, fooling around in the snow, and at impro playgroup in the battle zone. Laughter with friends in the midst of everything, is all the more poignant for its fragility among the horrific realities beyond sand-bagged walls.

The final film is a collaboration between Waad and English documentary filmmaker, Edward Watts. The look has been significantly enhanced by an interesting score, and by atmospheric location shots from a drone that counteract the impact of some erratic but utterly convincing handheld camera.

For Sama has multiple international awards and was one of five films nominated for a documentary Academy Award.

Watching their belief in the rebellion, their desperation as it becomes obvious international support is not on its way, is difficult to watch in light of what we have seen and know since.

For Sama comes with a strong warning, but it is still an amazing document. A sensory and immersive as any war film, filmed and voiced by from the frontline by a young wife and mother.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 February 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

M, 119 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury


A boat with a young female passenger on board makes its way along a rocky coastline. When a piece of luggage falls overboard she jumps in to rescue it, petticoats, boots and all. It might have been end of story in late eighteenth-century France where this film is set but, surprisingly, she can swim.

Artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is on her way to take up a new commission, painting the portrait of a young aristocrat who lives in a chateau on an island off Brittany. The new client, the Countess (Valeria Golino), needs a likeness of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel) to send to a prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman, so the wedding can go ahead.

it’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of The Piano, but there are significant differences

An arranged marriage in times past, stirring scenes on a beautiful, empty beach, a woman who expresses herself in the arts. It’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of Jane Campion’s The Piano. But there are significant differences. This is a love story between two women, and as the filmmaker points out, they are equals.

Correcting the pose: Heloise (Adele Haenel) on left and Marianne (Merlant)

It seems to me no accident that the writer-director, Celine Sciamma has set her story before the onset of the French Revolution, at a liminal moment for freedom and equality. She makes nothing of it, however.

Heloise, just out of a convent is refusing to marry, and she won’t cooperate for any portrait because the result will be marriage. Marianne learns that her elder sister didn’t wish to marry the Milanese nobleman either, and it seems she took her life on a walk along the cliff edge.

With instructions from the Countess to become her daughter’s companion, Marianne spends her days observing Heloise and taking mental notes as they go on walks together. She then paints by candlelight in the evening.

With little else to do but walk, talk and read, a relationship begins to develop between the artist and the aristocrat. In particular, they love to read and re-read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wondering about the motivations behind the tragic ending.

Although Heloise becomes aware of the deception she agrees to be painted anyway and during the sittings the two women spar, circle each other and eventually fall in love. The scenes as their relationship develops are exquisitely written by Sciamma, who won best screenplay at Cannes.

men are scarcely present, though still operating outside the frame

We don’t see much of men here. After Marianne’s arrival at the isolated castle, they are scarcely present though they are still operating outside the frame. Like the Milanese nobleman directing events from afar, or the local swain who has made the diminutive maid, Sophie ( Luana Bajrami), pregnant.

The absence of men allows Portrait to concentrate exclusively on a world of women in which the female sensibility and solidarity rules. It is expressed with intensity one evening when Marianne and Heloise join a group of local women gathering in the fields around a bonfire. It isn’t really clear what the gathering is about, but when the women join in an exquisite capella chorus and sing in Latin, it becomes a moment of surreal beauty and a celebration of feminine unity.

The painterly imagery is beautiful if rather stern and uncluttered and the soundtrack, with little music, is simply content to heighten the realism of the domestic world the women inhabit, with its crackling hearth and rustling, breathy silences. It is all the more powerful for it, more than making up for the minimalism with a few sublime musical moments like the ethereal capella singing.

On another occasion we hear ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when Marianne bumbles through it on a harpsicord. She doesn’t do it  justice, but the scene lays the foundation for the amazing and intense concert finale.

The sea plays its part: can Heloise (Adele Haenel) swim too?

This intelligent and sensuous film is special. An intimate and delicate study of how two people can fall in love. Marianne and Heloise could be any two individuals who fall in love, and the world that their story builds is rich reward to those who are willing to enter.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019. Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Pain and Glory

MA15+, 114 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The actor Antonio Banderas and director Pedro Almodovar first worked together in the 1980s and helped make each other famous with sexy, taboo-breaking films like Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was the post-Franco era in Spain and time to tear down decades of fascist repression.

Pain and Glory reflects on the central relationships in Salvador’s (Banderas) life – mother, lovers and actor collaborators. It’s a very personal collaboration between the actor and filmmaker, like a confessional from a couple of famous men of the big screen.

We first see Banderas, as successful film director Salvador Mallo, holding a pose while meditating at the bottom of a swimming pool.  The watery world draws memories of his early childhood to the surface, memories of laundry day at the river’s edge with his young mother (played in these scenes by another Almodovian muse, Penelope Cruz).

A gift for directors, fromTarantino to Almodovar, Banderas has had health issues of his own

As he catches up with an old friend, Salvador reveals that he has stopped writing and directing. Her surprise that he, of all people, has become reclusive and inactive, is a clue to the kind of person he was.

In later flashbacks, while in conversation with his elderly mother, he listens in such a touching way to her complaints that he disappointed her. Later, in a sweet scene between Banderas and Julieta Serrano, who plays Jacinta in her old age, she explains exactly how she wishes to be laid out when she dies.

In conversation with his long lost friend, Salvador recounts his various ailments, a list of enemies within that have beset him. His asthma, headaches, tinnitus and the sciatica that has given him a bad back. It’s a scary anatomical collage of medical imagery, almost as arresting as the opening titles over melting images that turn from solid to liquid before our eyes.

The state Salvador is in is a million miles from the irresistible hunk Banderas played in Almodovar’s early films, or from the swaggering hero he has played in Hollywood.

Another key relationship, not so explicitly referenced, is with the gay lover Salvador had when they were young men, before Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) left for Argentina and took a wife. The scenes between them 30 years later at Salvador’s apartment in Madrid, including the prominent kitchen with its bright red cupboards that looks a lot like the director’s own, are lovely to watch too.

Salvador (Antonio Banderas) and Alberto (Asier Etxeandia)

Yet another key relationship is the actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) from whom Salvador has also been estranged many years. Both Etxeandia and Sbaraglia give terrific performances too.

Handsome, tousle-haired, with a shy twinkle in his eye, Banderas has always been a welcome sight on screen. A gift for directors, from Quentin Tarantino to Almodovar, looking for a swashbuckler with devil-may-care (Desperado) or for a man for women to desire. Yet, here in Pain and Glory the presence we became used to is barely present. Banderas has been chastened by a real-life health issues of his own – a recent heart attack.

These life stories of these two creative collaborators, the film director and his alter ego, wind around each other like a double, double helix. Except that Banderas isn’t gay.

Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early work has developed and matured

It is like two of them put their heads together to create an intelligent, amusing and moving film with deep meaning for them both. Their energy coalesces around the wonderful performance that won Banderas the best actor award at Cannes earlier this year.

Since I became captivated by Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early films, he has remained one of my favourite filmmakers. All the while, his distinctive filmmaking – Volver and All About My Mother and Talk to Her among his best – has evolved, developed more depth and matured.

It isn’t surprising to hear in interview that another key relationship in Almodovar’s life has been the cinema, the world in which he says he still lives today. It’s a place of warmth and sensuality, of wit and wisdom, and as we see here, not without regrets.

Pain and Glory is a superior work from Pedro Almodovar with an intensely sensitive performance from Antonio Banderas. Both men may have been the bad boy and seen it all, but we didn’t know about this gentle, reflective side deep within.

First published in print and online by the Canberra Times on 9 November 2019

Apollo 11

Rated G, 93 mins

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

5 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

There are no talking heads recalling the event or opining its significance in this new doco about the first moon landing. Apollo 11 tells a well-known story in a fresh and dynamic way that is entirely in the moment, so we might as well be there too.

It is an exemplary record of the first time that men walked on the moon, and the astonishing story, a form of ‘direct cinema’ composed with archival material, is made to feel like ‘being there’ in July 1969.

No interviews, no voice over, and no re-enactments

Director Todd Douglas Miller, commissioned by CNN to direct a commemorative 50th anniversary documentary, apparently found much more footage than he could have hoped for in the archives. New vision in super wide 70mm of the launch complex, the crowds who attended and the astronauts’ recovery, helps make the film feel fresh.

There are no interviews, no voice-over narration (except an occasional announcement recorded at the time) nor any dramatised re-enactments. Skilfully put together, with a marvellous original score by Matt Morton, it layers the drama bit by bit, slotting the developments into place, taking into account the precision of the aerospace engineering that is on display.

We can expect to hear more from Miller, who has directed just one other commercial film to date. He was also the editor and one of the producers of Apollo 11.

Like opening a time capsule, not a selfie in sight

Things get rolling with the Saturn rocket on its way to the launch pad. We can see for ourselves how massive it is.

Now and again, the camera sweeps the crowds of onlookers gathering at a short distance from the launch area. They are filming on their Bell & Howell and Canon home movie cameras, and there isn’t a single selfie in sight.

Inside NASA, there are  teams of the men (plus an occasional woman) who made it happen. Rows and rows of them, in white business shirt and tie, anxiously consulting lines of consoles, while outside bands of journalists and hushed families, relaxing in the summer heat, wait for blast-off. Apollo 11 is like opening a time capsule.

Images of the pitted lunar surface and our beautiful blue planet from afar are so much more familiar 50 years on, but Apollo 11 manages to engender wonder and exhilaration for what was a momentous achievement at the time, and in the pre-digital age too.

Unfortunately, it cannot be ignored that the malefactor Richard Nixon was US President at the time of landing, and some of the glory unfortunately falls to him. However, the film seems to get around this by not naming him when he congratulates astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the success of their mission.

The late President Kennedy, makes a brief appearance, as he should, delivering a few lines from his famous ‘we choose to go to the moon’ speech. But it’s not until the end credits, because in 1969 he of course was no longer there.

A new documentary for the 50-year anniversary of the moon landing was inevitable, but there was no guarantee that it would be exceptional.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7


MA 15+, 2 hrs 15 mins


Review by ©Jane Freebury

5 Stars

In all the best possible ways, Roma reminded me of being a film student again. Of seminar weekends sitting watching something from the archive that proved a revelation. A meditation on the personal and collective human experience, wonderful to watch, like this film here.

Roma is not a film from an unknown, of course, or a first-timer with something new to say. Far from it. The most recent film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron was Gravity, an immersive, spellbinding journey in space that was huge at the box office, worldwide.

This film is something very close to the director’s heart, a story from his childhood in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family home, the street on which he lived and other locations in the city are meticulously recreated to look the way they did in the early 1970s.

Attention to detail contributes to Roma’s distinctive look and style. Filmed in widescreen, in digital black and white, it is an intimate story yet mostly told in long shot. Instead of using the close up much to establish connection, there are long sweeping, panning shots that keep everyone and everything in view, as though they are all of a piece. And editing is so minimal, and pacing so unhurried, you could be lulled into thinking it is in real time. The rhythms of everyday life get the dignity they deserve.

Besides directing and co-producing, Cuaron was writer, cinematographer and co-editor here.

Cuaron’s young self is not the main character, either. It is the former maid and nanny who looked after him and his brothers and sister, while their parents were often absent without leave. The narrative begins with the marriage between Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, on the point of breaking up.

After a long day at the hospital, Antonio enters the driveway in his Ford Galaxie, too large for the space. Not without comedy, he inches in tortuously, avoiding a scratch on the duco, but squishing the wheels over the piles of dog doo-doo scattered around. It is a constant source of irritation to Sofia, unreasonably so, and besides, Borras has nowhere else to do his business.

The family home is a generous space where children have large bedrooms, while the maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actor like most of the cast here), and her domestic companion the cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), share a tiny room at the top of steep stairs above the roof and the washing lines. We note this and a hundred other inequities.


Cuaron collaborated with his former nanny and family maid during screenwriting. He dedicates this film to Libo and to her class, domestic workers who have looked after and been surrogate mothers to generations of the wealthy middle-class. A dramatic scene on a beach with surging surf demonstrates the risks she would go to for the children.

Cleo’s affair with an intense young man makes connection between events outside the home and political upheaval at the time, like a notorious massacre in the city of student demonstrators by paramilitaries. Their brief affair results in a pregnancy that only embeds her deeper within the family.

After his films on the epic scale, Gravity and Children of Men, and since the very memorable Y Tu Mama Tambien, an intimate, sensitive portrait of coming-of-age, Roma is a powerful reminder of the scope of Cuaron’s talent.

With its roots in both poetic realism and neo-realism, Roma is also a reminder of what cinema can be when not driven by commercial imperatives.


Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7


Review by © Jane Freebury

It takes a brave and confident filmmaker to begin with so little information in frame. Leviathan begins with breathless long shot of a seaside village at dawn, a single boat speeding along the breakwater. In the midground a figure emerges from a house with lights on, but heads back in to turn them off before leaving. It’s a minor detail but intriguing as we strain for clues with the growing sense that something momentous is about to happen.

The concept ‘leviathan’, or monster of the deep, a reference to giant serpents and whales, has been a bit of favourite with heavy metal bands. Some powerful scenes here capture the presence of the great whales that swim offshore, but in this new film from Andrey Zvyagintsev, who brought us stunning contemporary visions of his native Russia in Elena and The Return, it also alludes to the book by 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Is it not, he asks, the role of government to protect the interests of the common man?

The man in long shot is Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a car mechanic whom everyone is after for his services. For the moment, though, he has other fish to fry. This morning he is picking up an old army buddy of his, a Moscow-based lawyer, from the station. Their drive back into town passes the hulks of abandoned fishing boats and derelict buildings and other signs that the world has moved on. A small fishing industry seems to be the only thing that is keeping the village going.

No wonder Kolya and his friends like to go out on boozy shooting picnics, emptying the bottles they stand in a row as quickly as they shatter them. No problem when they run out of targets. There’s a bunch of framed portraits of former Russian leaders in the car boot that will serve as substitutes. That portrait of a young Vlad Putin glimpsed on the wall of the mayor’s chambers can wait. It needs time to ripen.

Kolya’s lawyer friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), so polished and professional, seems everything that he isn’t. He has come to try to help Kolya keep the family home, a property with commanding views of the sound. The town mayor (Roman Madyanov), a corrupt official if ever there was one, has grand designs for the property and he will stop at nothing to ensure he gets it. Unfortunately for Kolya, others have design on his lovely wife too.

In this backwater where tempers flare and vodka and firearms are within easy reach, filmmaker Zvyagintsev can still occasionally offer us the funny side as he presents a tragedy of the Russian everyman. His ambitiously scaled panorama of life in his home country is as enormously impressive as it is deeply human.

In a capsule: A panorama of ordinary life in a remote fishing village in contemporary Russia, from a master filmmaker. Grand, slow cinema, deeply humanist.

4.5 stars

Before Midnight

Review by © Jane Freebury

In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the first two films of what has become an exquisite trilogy, time was of the essence. Money too. In the first brief encounter between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Vienna, it kept them on the streets, and talking, always talking. Second time around in Paris, after the designated nine-year interlude, things ended much less ambiguously, with the romantic couple alone in her apartment and the evening ahead.

Before Midnight, the third of the Before series starts as they near the end of a six week holiday together in a writers’ retreat in the southern Peloponnese under the laser light of the Mediterranean summer sun. There is still the sense of some sort of deadline, but on this occasion the couple have been together since last we met.

There is an imminent departure, but it’s Jesse’s 14-year-old son, who is leaving, flying home to his mum in Chicago. Dad (Hawke) and he are saying their goodbyes at the Kalamata airport, in a sequence that perfectly captures the dynamic of caring parent trying to assuage guilt in last-minute interaction with a child who is preoccupied with other matters anyway. Jesse walks out of the airport and towards the four-wheel drive where his partner awaits him, with a pair of beautiful blonde children asleep on the back seat. The last nine years since Before Sunset are revealed in single shot and it packs a wallop.

The drama proceeds to unfold on the front seat on the drive back to the retreat, with the camera sitting on the bonnet capturing it in the first of many long takes. With an absence of cuts, director Richard Linklater likes to immerse his audiences in his characters and their problems—without prioritising either character’s point-of-view—and the reality of the dramatic moment. Welcome to the talkfest that is the Before trilogy.

All the talk is however quite wonderful and one of those rare films where the acting brings to life the brilliant emotional honesty of the script as the conversation, delivered every which way, with love, humour or snarky payback, cuts through. The latest collaboration between Linklater and his two lead actors, it is a mirror for the unruly bundle of intimate needs and professional ambition, emotional dilemmas, compromises and triumphs of contemporary life.

Delpy’s beauty has had a kind of iconic status on screen since her appearances in Krysztof Kieslowski’s own trilogy Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Rouge and Blanc. The less said of Hawke’s scruffy appearance the better, but he is perfect for his role too. The two of them have given so generously of themselves in this rare treat of a film that just wants to explore, gently but incisively, how we really tick.

In a capsule: An exquisite study of mature romance, exploring the Before Sunset relationship many years on to discover what has changed and what remains the same.

5 stars

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s dusk on the Turkish steppe. A crime has been committed. The manacled perpetrator is part of the search party looking for the body of his victim. Apparently, he can’t remember exactly where it is buried. Is he an unreliable informant? Does he have his reasons for slowing the pace…?

As the hunt stalls, the conversation between the various policemen, the men with shovels and the officials involved in the case, turns from the professional to the personal. They behave as though suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis) wasn’t there, chatting amongst themselves about their lives at home, and inevitably, their women. When they discuss the quality of Turkish yoghurt, it is one of several occasions in which you begin to wonder where things are going. The comedic scenes when they realise they haven’t bought a body bag with them, and when they struggle to fit the body into the boot of their vehicle is another. And despite this, the film treats everyone, dead or alive, innocent or guilty, with respect.

The gaunt suspect is central to the investigation, but not to the film. It becomes apparent that it is the doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) who is the main character, and not, as we might have thought at first, the prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) who solicits our attention and fancies he looks like Clark Gable. In effect, Cemal is the observer, the guy who need only serve up the scientific evidence when required, until he is drawn into the unfolding drama and is himself compelled to play a part, despite his disinclinations and his efforts to keep himself beyond the fray.

Women are rarely seen and barely heard in this police procedural, if that’s what it is. The frames are dominated by images of dark men in heavy coats under a lowering night sky, yet women hold the key to the narrative mysteries. Or, as one characters mutters, they are at the bottom of everything.

When the men pause their search to dine with a local mayor, they are suddenly confronted by the beauty of his daughter who appears to help serve their meal. The talk stops and they all gaze in silent wonder. The moment is at once incidental and momentous.

This majestic, complex and beautiful film—it won’t be for everyone—is full of scenes like these, both incidental and momentous. And from time to time it feels as though the director (and co-writer) Nuri Bilge Ceylan could change the direction at any time, from procedural to thriller to comedy to romance and back again. The title announces it has a tale to tell but with the final frames an element of mystery remains. It’s an exquisitely subtle point to end it on, but enormously satisfying all the same.

In a capsule: A subtle and superbly original film that involves a party of men in a search for the body of a murder victim in the Turkish countryside.  Grand cinema, and a police procedural like no other.

5 stars

The King’s Speech

Review by © Jane Freebury

It is good to see—if this marvellous film gets it right—that the Australian Lionel Logue had a healthy disregard for the English class system when he was a speech therapist in Harley Street. Brought to life, and to our attention, by Geoffrey Rush, he would not be put down by the snobbery that goes with it and insisted on equality within his rooms so he could relieve the Duke of York (Colin Firth) of his crippling stutter. Crikey, anyone heard of this bloke Logue and his place in history before?

Written with warmth and acuity by David Seidler, an American screenwriter who apparently has a stutter himself, it follows the course of the treatment that Logue gave the Duke when he showed up at his clinic as ‘Mr Johnston’. It ends with him addressing his country as king when Britain entered the war in 1939. There were a few stammers there, but as he observed, how would the public know it was him unless there were a few of the usual awkward pauses.

King George VI could joke about it then, but his difficulties became painfully public while as Duke he opened a major exhibition at Wembley in 1925. It prompted him to try something radical with an unorthodox Australian therapist – he and his sympathetic wife (Helena Bonham-Carter has shed the goth weeds for a change) were desperate – who might bring the shy but proud man out of himself. We know he managed the opening of our (Old) Parliament House in 1927, but the problem apparently persisted.

He reluctantly agreed to sessions conducted on first-name basis, even let Lionel address him by his family diminutive ‘Bertie’. To free him up, they sang to the tune of ‘Swanee River’ together, made fools of themselves, and let rip with the expletives. There are funny scenes in abundance on the journey to find the man’s inner boy who began stuttering at 4 or 5, and was a left-hander forced to write with his right, a common practice in those days.

The stakes were high on this personal journey – it was in the national interest that the king found his tongue. After the death of the stern old king his father (Michael Gambon) and the abdication of his reprobate older brother (Guy Pierce), Britain was staring into the maw of war. It needed a leader who wouldn’t freeze in front of a microphone—and sound like a leader. Herr Hitler was doing pretty well on that score at the time.

Radio, the new technology of the time, meant monarchs had to be actors. Before it arrived, all they had to do was stay on their horse.

Like all good things, you won’t want this film to finish. It’s a gift that gives audiences pleasure.

In a capsule: A superbly entertaining film with Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter in top form in a drama about a man who wouldn’t be king, but he had to. A small but important piece of history, and it’s only just come to our notice.

5 stars

Samson and Delilah

Review by Jane Freebury

In the lead-up to its screening at Cannes, it might seem to sceptical punters that the critics are falling over themselves in praise of this first feature from Indigenous writer/director Warwick Thornton, who has already made his mark with a clutch of highly-regarded short films. Too much hype can work against a film. Will audiences take Samson & Delilah to their hearts too? I really hope so.

It is a special film. It calls itself a love story, though I wouldn’t say it was quite like that. There is certainly a tentative love and growing tenderness as two teenagers, Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson), leave their remote outback home behind and try to live on the urban fringe. It’s an odyssey that will speak to every single one of us.

Neither teenager lives with their parents. Samson is staying with his older brother, who seems to live off the reggae his ‘verandah band’ plays to distraction, as there’s not a skerrick of food in the fridge. Samson just hangs out, making the occasional nuisance of himself. Overcome by lassitude and hopelessness, and other issues we can only guess at, Samson needs to sniff petrol to get out of bed in the morning. We certainly cover some bleak territory but this is not an issue film. The story comes first.

Delilah with her Nana, an artist who supplies the gallery in nearby Alice Springs with her traditional paintings for a pittance compared with what they’re sold for. Delilah has a purposeful life providing care for her granny, who she takes in a battered wheelchair to the health service followed by a visit to the church, before they settle down to more painting together.

After a cuff over the ear from older brother for trying to join in the band with some noisy guitar, Connor picks up his bedroll and heads over to Delilah’s place. Mischievous grandma teases her about the attentions of this silent and persistent boy but Delilah’s not at all sure. And we’re not sure about her feelings either until she notices Samson dancing alone one night to the sound on his boombox, while she listens to Italian love songs in the dark – and their music mingles.

The look of the film is very seductive, with wonderful images from Thornton’s handheld camera, but I can appreciate that in other ways the film takes some risks with little dialogue and even less action. And yet the results resonate so powerfully. We have every indication of special talent at work here and this could just become a classic.

In a capsule: An immensely moving story, sensitively and skilfully told, about two teenagers in a remote Indigenous community who have stalled, unable to find their way. Every memorable frame announces this is the work of a major new talent in Australian film.

5 stars