Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The best film you've never heard of

If your experience of Australian cinema is limited to ethereal supernatural dramas or abrasive comedies with a distinct ABBA bias to the soundtrack, allow me to broaden your horizons for a moment. This Monday saw the belated (14 years to be precise) DVD release of a little known Australian comedy that packs more laughs in its slim 82 minute running time than Adam Sandler's entire career. Then again, so did the Nuremberg Trials.

Released in 1997, The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigans, a blue collar Melbourne family who resist a compulsory acquisition notice from the airport next door. Arguing that "a man's home is his castle", family patriarch Darryl goes to court to defend his patch, eventually taking his case to the High Court of Australia. To the development company which plans to extend the international freight runway, Kerrigan's home is a shambolic eyesore, with faux "Victoriana" trimmings and a disturbing amount of lead in the soil. But as Darryl repeatedly points out, citing the land rights movement of the Australian Aborigines, "it's not a house, it's our home".

The film was a huge hit in Australia, netting over $10 million, on a budget that might charitably be described as meagre. In fact, the original shooting schedule was shaved from 20 days down to 11, since that was as long as its makers could afford to feed the cast and crew. Frugality was obviously the watchword on set, as the family was named Kerrigan so that the producers could borrow readily-painted tow-trucks from a real-life business in Melbourne.

Rising above its low-fi origins, the film has established itself as a comedy favourite with those who were smart enough to see it when it was originally released. Its appeal stems from the uniquely sympathetic depiction of a family who make up in love what they lack in intellect. The jokes never resort to mocking or cruelty, instead revelling in the unmitigated joy of a man who has discovered that the best things in life are either free, or available for a knock-down price in the Trading Post.

Despite a budget that wouldn't pay for the sequins in a Baz Luhrmann movie, The Castle managed to score an impressive cast, including sterling support from Australian legend Charles 'Bud' Tingwell and, in his debut, a pre-Chopper Eric Bana. However, the bulk of the film rests in the capable hands of Anne Tenney and Michael Caton, who both found fame in long-running Aussie soap A Country Practice. With hardly a cross word spoken between them, Darryl and Sal are the beating heart of the film - supporting and encouraging one another, even as their cosy life begins to unravel like the tassels that pretty up Sal's "ergonometric" chair.

In retrospect, it's clear that Caroline Aherne's Royle Family owes a debt of gratitude to the Kerrigans, with its grainy fly-on-the-wall style and an intuitive sense of pathos that never jars with the laugh-out-loud moments. And there are plenty of those - this is an eminently quotable movie that, like the Royles, finds an abundance of humour in the banality of repetition.

If the idea of sitting through another bloated, effects-filled blockbuster fills you with dread, The Castle could be just the antidote you need. And if anyone says it's not funny, "tell him he's dreaming".

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