The Dry

MA 15+, 117 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The details of Jane Harper’s bestselling novel are known to many readers the world over, yet the film adaptation with Eric Bana is no less likely to be a success. Even though we know in advance what happens.

Purists may resist the imposing presence of Bana as Aaron Falk. He is a different physical type from his character on the page. In Harper’s words, her protagonist is pale, blond and freckled, burdened with a complexion that presents a distinct disadvantage under the harsh outback sun.

Bana, on the other hand, is a good fit for man of the land. He hasn’t been cast as a Hollywood superhero for nothing, and he fits equally well as a federal police officer here, the financial crimes analyst from the city.

Aaron goes back to Kiewarra, the town where he grew up, to attend the funeral of an old friend, Luke.

On return, Aaron is made to feel he no longer belongs. As an outsider from the metropolis, as a representative of overarching authority but also as a person with a smear against his name.

There is the suspicion that he didn’t say all he knew when a local girl, Ellie Deacon (BeBe Bettencourt), was found drowned 20 years before.

In The Dry, the people of Kiewarra have had a brush with the apocalypse, and they are toughened. From relentless drought, the existential glow of bushfires on the horizon and the plume of dust that rises behind everything that moves. It has not rained in 324 days, and there are no prospects it will any time soon.

In his (fictional) hometown in regional Victoria, Aaron is a five-hour drive from Melbourne but light years away from the world he knows. Suddenly pitched back into the bush, he comes alive to it for the first time in 20 years, and it is sensory overload.

Memories triggered by a return to place, can be so powerful. Nothing else has been laid down there since they were formed, and they are as fresh as yesterday.

Aaron discovers he remains implicated in what happened to Ellie, so he has an investment in the truth, even if ‘isn’t something you can expect to find in this town’, as someone says. But Aaron is not a member of the town ecosystem and he has clarity of recall.

After attending the funeral of former friend Luke Hadley, shot dead along with his wife and young son, Aaron decides to stay on, despite the glacial welcome he has received. He will take more leave and remain in town because the more he hears about the shootings, the less convinced he is that Luke was to blame.

A visit to Luke’s grieving parents is met with suspicion by grieving father, Gerry (Bruce Spence). The teenage girl found drowned at a popular swimming spot was a friend of his and Luke’s, so what more does he know?

At the hotel where Aaron is grudgingly given a room, the hotelier in wild bushman’s beard and several hostile others, had me wondering whether The Dry was going to veer into ‘outback gothic’. The atmosphere has more than a touch of Wake in Fright, the brawling, brutal classic Australian outback thriller of 1971.

No night-time kangaroo hunts or drunken games of two up, just a mood of menace

The town schoolteacher here, John Polson’s conflicted Scott Whitlam, is an after-hours pokies addict. It’s a difficult role to play.

The Dry screenplay, a collaboration between Connolly and Harry Cripps, stays true to the book, however. There are no night-time kangaroo hunts or drunken games of two up, just a pervasive mood of menace.

Not everyone spurns Aaron. Gretchen (a lively Genevieve O’Reilly) doesn’t. She signals her interest, and there is a short-lived flirtation. O’Reilly’s performance is very engaging, but also well-judged where I found some minor characters overdrawn.

About what it means to return to place, where you grew up

The director, Robert Connolly (Balibo, Paper Planes) has observed that his film is a story about what it means to returns to the place where you grew up. As such The Dry is a story about ‘staying or leaving’, something many can respond to.

Connolly has kept the lid on things, ensuring his story remains character-driven when it could have become melodramatic, even over-wrought. Ensuring the narrative works as a crime thriller and not an outback gothic drama. The Dry is a compelling film that has really enhanced its source.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 January 2021