As 'The Castle' turns 20, we look into why this beloved Aussie comedy resonates as strongly as it did in 1997.
By
Dave Crewe

10 Apr 2017 - 11:46 AM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 3:48 PM

Why It’s Important

The title of best Australian film is hotly contested, but if you’re looking for the most Australian film, it’s hard to go past The Castle. The film’s 1997 release saw it go straight to the pool room of Australian popular culture, and in the two decades since, it’s only reinforced its prominence as a source of colloquial comedy. Choice quotes from its screenplay – “tell him he’s dreaming,” “so much serenity,” “it’s the vibe of the thing” and, of course, “suffer in your jocks!” – have firmly established themselves as part of the Australian vernacular.

Produced by Working Dog Productions – also responsible for the likes of Frontline, The Panel and The Dish, amongst many others – The Castle was a smash hit upon its local release, grossing over $10 million from a comparatively tiny $750,000 budget. An attempt, two years later, to sell the film in the United States was less successful, although one wonders if that can be credited to the misguided decision to redub the dialogue with the intention of making it more accessible – read: less ocker – to an international audience.

Critics loved it too, for the most part, with the notable exception of one David Stratton. Despite describing it as “low concept” and “particularly disappointing” in his review for Variety, Stratton’s since come around; the recent documentary on the critic, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, went out of its way to assure Aussie audiences that Stratton had since come to love the film’s charming comedy.

Watch David and Margaret's original review of 'The Castle' in The Movie Show:

 

And why wouldn’t he? The Castle may not be the most sophisticated film, boasting neither audacious cinematography, nor deep philosophical themes, but its pride of place in Australian culture has been fairly earned. Its David vs Goliath story of battlers fighting against big business and bureaucracy continues to strike a nerve because of how generously it regards its working class characters. Like all great Aussie comedy, it at once satirises and admires its subjects, offering an enduring portrait of simple folk with big hearts and big dreams. (Even dreams involving overpriced pulpits.)

Watch trailer:

 

What’s It Really About?

Australian Identity

From the outset, it’s important to note that The Castle isn’t necessarily intended to be about anything. The film’s primary goal is to entertain. Writing for Meanjin, Lorraine Mortimer pointed out that “The Castle isn’t a thesis film”, while co-writer Santo Cilauro has explained that they “didn’t set out to make a comment about the fabric of Australian society. We set out to tell the story of a family and their house… as simple as that.” Regardless of intentionality (or lack thereof), the film offers an expansive portrait of contemporaneous Australian culture, fixated primarily on the working class.

The Kerrigans are a typical Aussie family. Their portrayal is exaggerated but affectionate. The screenplay (from Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch) wryly mocks the family’s customs from greyhound racing to amateur renovation without ever feeling mean-spirited. That distinction is critical to the film’s success; were this merely an unkind satire of the Aussie ‘bogan’, then it’s hard to imagine it would have been so warmly embraced by a diverse cross-section of fans.

"Its David vs Goliath story of battlers fighting against big business and bureaucracy continues to strike a nerve because of how generously it regards its working class characters."

The majority of the film’s comedy stems from its deadpan depictions of the Kerrigan’s way of life. Darryl, as the family’s patriarch, fancies himself a shrewd businessman (their house, positioned directly adjacent to the Melbourne airport, “is worth almost as much today as when we bought it.”) and a bit of a gourmet (“What do you call this?” “Chicken!”). He’s extremely proud of his children, especially Tracey (Sophie Lee), who boasts both a Certificate in Hairdressing and stories from her recent trip to Thailand, celebrating her marriage to Con Petropoulus (Eric Bana, in his first film role). Then there’s the three boys: our narrator, Dale (Stephen Curry); Steve (Anthony Simcoe) and jailbird Wayne (Wayne Hope).

Watching the film twenty years later, The Castle offers a snapshot of the “suburban grotesque” – ordinary Aussies with oversized, ‘larrikin’ personalities. It also reveals a great deal about the underlying assumptions of the filmmakers regarding working class life. The Kerrigans are closed to culture beyond that on Australia’s Funniest Home Videos. This is best exemplified by how Dale, listening to his sister’s stories, is more fascinated by the idea of watching movies on an aeroplane than any aspect of Thai culture. This makes for some great jokes while reinforcing hoary stereotypes about the ‘lower class’ and ‘high art’.

Of course, comedy is grounded in such stereotypes! The Castle exploits them to demonstrate the pros and cons of such a narrow-minded approach to life. The Kerrigans’ resistance to global trends uniquely positions them as prepared to resist the encroaching arm of AirLink, attempting to steal their house from underneath them. It also motivates them to band together as a community with their Highview Crescent neighbours.

Class and Culture

Through these stereotypes, the film offers an incidental (and largely implicit) analysis of the drawbacks of the family’s reluctance to expand their horizons. The Kerrigan household is one with firm gender roles: Mum (Anne Tenney) is the homemaker, Darryl the breadwinner, while Tracey’s tasked with holding the punching bag for her would-be-kickboxer husband. There’s a touch of racism, too. The occasional comment from Darryl – “Let’s not beat around the bush, the Greeks have a reputation,” from his speech at Tracey’s wedding, or his frustrated “What is it with wogs and cash?” – suggests that he and his family might benefit from a broader exposure to culture beyond their backyard.

Based on the evidence presented in the film, it’s unfair to characterise Darryl as a racist. These comments are born of ignorance, not malice, and Caton’s performance ensures Darryl reads as a genuinely good-natured bloke. And, again, this doesn’t come across as intentional; per Cilauro, the screenplay’s references to race were “not a conscious decision… we are just acknowledging that Australia is made up of people from many different races.”

If anything, Darryl comes across as oblivious to the divisions defining Australian society. That’s particularly apparent in his first conversation with retired barrister Lawrence Hammill (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell). Their conversation is a remarkably convenient coincidence in an otherwise relatively realistic narrative; the chances that Darryl would befriend a lawyer with extensive experience in the area of land rights is incredibly implausible. But their encounter – where Darryl makes the mistake of assuming Lawrence is there to support his son (Tony Martin) as a defendant, not a lawyer – breaks through the class barrier that’s ubiquitous yet, often, invisible in Australia.

Us Aussies like to pretend we’re an egalitarian bunch who’ve thrown off the constrictive shackles of class that define English society. There’s some truth to that – how many countries can boast a former prime minister with a world record for beer drinking? – but while class might not be a big deal at the pub, it makes a huge difference at the courthouse. The role of class in our justice system is impossible to ignore when AirLink’s lawyer snidely dismisses the Kerrigans’ case in the courtroom climax, describing their home as an “eyesore” and quipping that “we’d have the jails full of people like [Darryl’s] son” if there were more houses like it.

It’s not accidental that the Kerrigans finally achieve success in the courts through the intervention of QC Hammill. Even with a lawyer a tad more competent than Dennis “it’s the vibe” Denuto (Tiriel Mora), it’s impossible to imagine the family breaking down the invisible economic and social barriers keeping them in their place without the aid of someone so familiar with the social and structural norms of the system. The Castle may have a happy ending, but the subtext is clear: this kind of victory isn’t earned through hard work, determination or honesty: it’s earned through knowing the right people.

Land Rights

The Castle’s screenwriters aren’t subtle about aligning the Kerrigans’ quest to protect their property with indigenous Australians’ fight to maintain control over their sacred land. Mabo – as in Eddie Mabo, who famously fought a winning fight against the legal doctrine of terra nullius to enshrine Aboriginal land rights in law – is referenced on two occasions. But the film lays its cards on the table in this impassioned speech from Caton, arriving late in the film when Darryl’s at his lowest ebb:

"I’m really starting to understand how the Aborigines feel… This house is like their land. It holds their memories. The land is their story. It’s everything. You can’t just pick it up and plonk it down somewhere else. This country’s gotta stop stealing other people’s land."

This speech makes The Castle’s allegory explicit. You could argue that Working Dog have constructed somewhat a false equivalency here, particularly given that Darryl’s battle was won in minutes, while Mabo’s fight took over a decade (Mabo’s victory came months after his death) and has been increasingly eroded in the years since. (Observe how Adani’s plan for their Carmichael coal mine tramples over the wishes of its indigenous owners.) Yet the film is ultimately intended to be a heart-warming fantasy, and while its allegory is imperfect, it might prompt a few audience members to rethink their opinions on Aboriginal land rights.

There’s certainly something to be said for aligning the overreach of colonialism with the subsequent overreach of globalism/neoliberal capitalism. The Kerrigans gripe about only being able to afford a two-bedroom flat in Melbourne with the $70,000 they’ve been offered; two decades later, the idea of being able to live anywhere in the vicinity of Melbourne with that sort of money is funnier than any of the film’s jokes. Today’s equivalent of the Kerrigans aren’t living near Melbourne airport with a half-dozen cars in their backyard and unapproved extensions – they’re renting, because that’s all they can afford. While circumstances may have changed, the core of The Castle’s message – the quest for a ‘fair go’ – resonates today as strongly as it did in 1997. 

Follow the author here: @dacrewe

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