Tricia Youlden

Last Cab to Darwin ★★★★ M

Reg Cribb and Jeremy Sims were inspired to write Last Cab to Darwin from two stories: one about a terminally-ill Broken Hill cab driver, Max Bell, who drove to Darwin in 1991 hoping to take advantage of the NT’s voluntary euthanasia laws; the other about Bob Dent, the first person to die from a voluntary lethal injection in Darwin in 1996. Cribb and Sims cast iconic Australian actor Michael Caton to play their lead character, Rex, a cab driver born and bred in Broken Hill. Rex is a bachelor but his close relationship with his neighbour Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) is an open secret.

With his stomach cancer having spread to his liver, Rex is given three months to live. Determined not to die in hospital, he sets out to drive to Darwin, where Dr Nicole (“call me Nic”), Farmer (Jacki Weaver) has developed a voluntary euthanasia machine. On the way to Oodnadatta, he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), a complex young Aboriginal man who both charms and irritates Rex. Tilly ends up travelling all the way to Darwin with him. In Daley Waters, where Rex’s parents met, they are joined by Julie (Emma Hamilton), a backpacking British nurse, who appoints herself Rex’s carer when she realises how ill he is. She develops an intimate bond with Rex and encourages him to admit his true feelings for Polly. The relationships between Rex and his friends, both old and new, are woven in and out of the major narrative. Back in Broken Hill, things are changing. Rex’s drinking mates Dougie (David Field), Simmo (John Howard) and Col (Alan Dukes) have been making decisions, too. Polly’s family has come to visit and it looks like they’re staying. Several awkward telephone calls gradually make Rex acknowledge that not only do people care for him, but that he cares for them, too.

Broken Hill, Oodnadatta, Alice Springs, Daley Waters, Darwin and the thousands of kilometres of countryside between them look amazing. Familiar faces pop up in cameo roles in the authentic settings visited en route. While Steve Arnold’s cinematography alone is worth the price of admission, so too is Ed Kuepper’s music.

Cribb’s comments that “comedy and laughter and tears sit really close together”. This is certainly true of Last Cab to Darwin, a film not to be missed.

Oddball ★★★ G

Shane Jacobson as Swampy with Oddball

The introductory narration describes Oddball as “a fairy tale that really happened” as it is largely based on the story of poultry farmer “Swampy” Marsh’s inspired experiment to train Maremma dogs to guard the endangered fairy penguin population of Middle Island off the coast of Warrnambool.

In the film, Swampy (Shane Jacobson) is a reclusive man. His daughter, Emily (Sarah Snook), has followed in her late mother’s footsteps as the ranger responsible for the colony of fairy penguins whose numbers have dwindled dramatically due to predatory foxes being able to access the island at low tide. Complicating the issue is a budding romance between Emily and American Bradley Slater (Alan Tudyk). Employed by the council to promote tourism, he is keen to allow a whale-watching company to base its operations on the island even though the mayor (Deborah Mailman) disapproves.

Although his relationship with his own daughter is prickly, Swampy is very close to Emily’s daughter, Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies), with whom he hatches the plan to train his miscreant Maremma, Oddball (Kai), to protect the little penguins from the foxes. After all, he reasons, “penguins are just chickens in tuxedos”.

Add the antics of a vindictive dog-catcher (Frank Woodley), a bumbling policeman (Dave Lawson), various cute penguins, chooks and Maremmas and you have a warm-hearted blend of comedy, suspense and drama. Jacobson gives an endearingly natural performance whether he is talking to animals or humans, big or small. Directed by Stuart McDonald, written by Peter Ivan and filmed by Damian Wyvill, Oddball has cross-generational appeal. It could just give Warrnambool the boost in tourism that Bradley Slater was seeking.

Holding the Man★★★★ MA

In 1976, Tim Conigrave fell in love with fellow student John Caleo, captain of the Xavier College football team. Thus began a relationship that endured for 15 years despite parental objections and separations.

Following his partner’s death in 1992, Tim wrote his highly acclaimed memoir entitled Holding the Man, which he finished only 10 days before his own death in 1995. Both men died from AIDS-related diseases. Writer Tommy Murphy’s 2006 stage adaptation, directed by David Berthold, played throughout Australia and London’s West End. Now Murphy has adapted the memoir for the screen and it is directed by Neil Armfield. Germain McMicking’s cinematography and Josephine Ford’s production design deftly capture the essence of the time in which the story is set.

From the first time Tim sees John (Craig Stott) at Xavier, he is smitten. The feeling is mutual. Two boys “going together” is, however, anathema to the Catholic school community and especially to John’s parents (Anthony Lapaglia and Camilla Ah Kin).

Interestingly, while the lay staff want to discipline the boys, the Jesuits understand: “We need educated people to fight the fight.” Nor are Tim’s parents (Guy Pearce and Kerry Cox) judgmental. When they realise that the boys’ relationship is serious, they endeavour to be supportive.

Having successfully auditioned for NIDA, Tim moves to Sydney while John studies to be a chiropractor in Melbourne. The NIDA scenes are most entertaining with cameos by the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Jane Menelaus.

Reunited post-graduation, the men are devastated by their diagnosis as HIV positive. In exploring the way they, their families and friends subsequently behave, the film realistically depicts society’s attitude to gay relationships and ignorance about HIV-AIDS in those early years. Although there are many touching moments in the AIDS ward scenes the film is never maudlin or sentimental. It simply captures the cheerful, caring atmosphere that the wonderful, humane staff created in those wards back then. Murphy, Armfield, cast, crew and production team are to be applauded on their sensitive realisation of Conigrave’s memoir of his and John’s shared life and love.

The Daughter ★★★ M

This film grew out of the acclaimed 2011 Belvoir theatre production inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s Wild Duck. Writer-director Simon Stone sets his film in an Australian town near a pine forest. The plot taps into the ongoing debate between timber workers and environmentalists.

On the eve of his wedding to his much younger housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv), local timber mogul, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), has closed down the mill, threatening the very existence of the local community. His estranged son Christian (Paul Schneider) has returned from America for the nuptials.

Unfortunately, Christian’s own marriage is on the rocks, which causes him to fall off the temperance wagon. With his tongue loosened by alcohol, Christian discloses secrets that destroy the happiness of all and sundry, especially that of his former friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), happily married to local schoolteacher Charlotte (Miranda Otto). Their daughter (Odessa Young) retains the name Ibsen bestowed upon her: Hedvig. Young and Sam Neill as her grandfather give particularly sympathetic performances in this gripping tale of secrets, lies and revenge.

Cinematographer Andrew Commis makes effective use of the forest shadows to create an air of mystery and foreboding as the past threatens to destroy the present. Having a knowledge of Ibsen’s play only heightens audience tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

The Gift ★★★ M

The Gift is the directorial debut of its writer and star, Joel Edgerton. To say too much about this taut psychological suspense drama could ruin the audience experience. Edgerton’s crisp direction and grasp of the genre makes this a genuinely scary film. The screenplay explores the impact of the past upon the present.

In The Gift, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (a stellar performance by Rebecca Hall) have just moved back to Simon’s home city. After a chance encounter, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a former classmate of Simon’s, begins popping around.

Although Robyn appreciates Gordo’s company and help Simon appears determined to rebuff him. While this initially upsets Robyn, matters settle down as they settle into their new life. Little incidents, however, start to make Robyn uneasy and she begins seeking explanations, thus unlocking a murky past.

Their house features glass walls, which provide cinematographer Eduard Grau with some deliciously scary reflections and glimpses of shadowy shapes lurking outside.

The Gift is well worth a look.

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby Girls High School.