National Release Date: March 2nd Running Time: 101 minutes
Directed by Rachel Perkins. Based on the novel by Craig Silvey.
The tale of Jasper Jones is a dark and troubling one.
After establishing our location is Corrigan – a timber town adjoining great tracts of Australian bush in Western Australia in 1969, two boys sit on a backyard bench beside a Hills Hoist spitting watermelon seeds onto a tablecloth drying in the sun.
Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller – Pan, Red Dog True Blue) and his mate Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long, in his acting debut) are reading comic books and debating the merits of Batman and Superman. It is a conversation they return to later in the film, but Charlie’s preference for Batman seems fitting when he receives a visitor to his window later that night.
A figure appears outside his window and when Charlie opens the glass slats to see who it is, we see a face framed so that we can only see eyes, just like Batman’s mask.
Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) a young Aboriginal man, is the shadowy figure and he urges Charlie to follow him into the bush. Charlie removes several glass window slats and slides out into the garden where Jasper leads the apprehensive Charlie to his camp beside a billabong.
There, swinging from a branch is the body of a young woman.
Jasper begs Charlie to help him, insisting the body has nothing to do with him, despite both young men knowing the victim – Laura Wishart (Nandalie Campbell Killick), one of two daughters of the local Shire President – Pete Wishart (Myles Pollard).
The other daughter – the younger Eliza (Angouri Rice who lit up the screen in both The Nice Guys and These Final Hours) is Charlie’s age, 14, and, when it becomes evident her sister is missing, Charlie fails in his first opportunity to tell Eliza he knows something.
Throughout the film, Charlie accumulates evidence that would seem to implicate him in the disappearance of Laura and he has ample opportunities to offer assistance or helpful information in the search for her.
Jasper is certain that Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) is behind the grisly death, but it seems pretty clear that this is a touch too convenient given how Jacks’ bedraggled appearance and ramshackle abode would paint him as an obvious candidate. Combined with the fact that the townspeople call him “Mad” Jack…
The year is 1969, and this remote town in Western Australia has yet to catch up with the rest of the world kicking up its heels celebrating the “Swinging Sixties”. There is an air of English stiff upper lip that pervades all behaviour amongst the population, who are coming to grips with the idea of a man on the moon and an ongoing war in Vietnam claiming precious lives of the young male population.
There are an AWFUL lot of ideas flying around in this story, including race relations, but the chief narrative is the missing young woman and the audience’s awareness that Charlie has many of the answers but won’t or can’t speak up. Like most coming-of-age tales (Stranger Things, Stand By Me) Charlie has nobody he can turn to and share these insights with, without betraying the trust of Jasper Jones, who, being Aboriginal is most likely to cop the blame for Laura’s death.
Having not read the widely praised book I am unable to compare how the film brings this acclaimed text to life. I can say that the revelation of key details felt obvious and easily presumed – perhaps a consequence of the story’s intended audience of high school students.
I wonder if a miniseries may have given the idea more justice?
The performances from the entire cast are excellent, but I have to say my absolute favourite character was Jeffrey. Long’s performance as a spunky Vietnamese kid and budding cricket champion seemed so authentic in amongst characters that I am more than familiar with, having grown up on a diet of Anglo productions in this country.
I was grateful to see this with my own 16-year-old son Quinn, who was familiar with the book, and I think I can safely say we both thought the film was good, not great.
To be honest I wouldn’t wish the task of making films in this country on my worst enemy. It seems almost impossible to create something that can be a critical and commercial success and having seen firsthand what it takes to make a piece of cinema, the rewards do not match the effort required. I’m keen to see how things unfold for this film as well as another celebrated Australian novel also set in Western Australia hitting the big screen later in the year – Breath, from Tim Winton.
3 & 1/2 Stars.