The bush, the outback… whatever you want to call it, that large area of inland Australia fascinates and scares us in equal measure, particularly if you live in the relative safety of a big city.
Many terrifying movies – from the original Wake In Fright to Wolf Creek – have effectively exploited our fears of this country’s extreme weather conditions, potentially lethal wildlife, vast emptiness and almost otherworldly terrain. Add 2015’s Strangerland, screening on NITV, to that long list.
On the other hand, some films go completely in the other direction, using the Aussie bush as a majestic setting that enhances the onscreen action: think The Man From Snowy River, Dirt Music and Crocodile Dundee. Such is the case with 1993’s endearing family flick The Silver Brumby, which airs soon on both SBS World Movies and NITV.
How filmmakers treat the bush – as friend or foe – depends on the type of story they’re trying to tell. Strangerland is a mystery drama about teenager Lily Parker (Maddison Brown) and her younger brother Tom (Nicholas Hamilton), who go missing one night in the small outback town of Nathgari in the height of a scorching summer. A dust storm the following day all but extinguishes any clues to the children’s whereabouts, leaving their parents, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes), bewildered and struggling to keep their rocky marriage together.
Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving) launches a search party in a race against time to find Lily and Tom. As he tells Catherine and Matthew, the kids only have a few days before the 40°C heat kills them.
At the same time, David feels the heat from some locals when he starts interviewing local lads on their possible involvement with the disappearances. He also learns that the Parkers moved to Nathgari following an incident in another town involving the sexually precocious Lily and one of her teachers.
Kidman is great, as always, in conveying Catherine’s descent from guilt and despair into full-blown mental disintegration, especially after she discovers Lily’s secret diary. Fiennes perfectly captures a raging, helpless father who can only think with his fists as he desperately seeks answers to his children’s whereabouts. But there are no easy answers in Strangerland.
Shot in and around Canowindra in central NSW and Broken Hill in far-west NSW, the outback has a stark beauty courtesy of cinematographer PJ Dillon. His stunning aerial footage of soaring cliffs and rugged plains wouldn’t look out of place in a Tourism Australia ad – except it’s married to Keefus Ciancia’s spooky soundtrack that makes the countryside seem ominous rather than inviting.
Strangerland is, at times, reminiscent of Picnic At Hanging Rock with young people wandering off and being swallowed up without a trace, as if the wilderness itself is a deadly predator. This point is made clear by one local who tells Catherine, “Kids go missing out here… it’s the land.”
The Silver Brumby
Unlike Strangerland, The Silver Brumby presents the bush in a far more favourable light. From its opening sequence set in a spectacular thunderstorm, director John Tatoulis treats the Victorian highlands, where the film was shot, as a place of visual wonder.
There’s no soul-crushing heat and desolate, sun-cracked vistas here. Instead, the terrain is filled with crystal-clear creeks, lush green mountainsides and forests filled with cuddly kangaroos and wombats. Even the winter scenes, with the landscape buried under a blanket of snow, feel more beautiful than brutal.
Set in the 1950s, The Silver Brumby – based on the beloved book series written by Elyne Mitchell – sees the author (played by Caroline Goodall) tell her daughter Indi (Amiel Daemion, who gained greater fame a few years later as a pop star) about handsome Thowra, a wild horse whose white coat, silver mane and tail make him a target for an obsessed stockman called The Man (Russell Crowe). Thowra must also face the threat of a rival stallion, The Brolga, who stole his birthright as king of the Cascade brumbies.
Crowe agreed to star in the film only if he could do his own horse-riding stunts, which he does with ease. However, the real stars are four-legged. A nationwide search was held to find horses that not only looked like the main characters, but could also be trained to do the many stunts required of them. The sequences involving the horses are expertly put together and the animal wranglers did an incredible job, particularly the vicious battles between The Brolga and Thowra’s father, Yarraman.
The other major star in The Silver Brumby is the highlands, a breathtaking location imbued with near-mystical qualities by Tatoulis. It is utterly unlike Strangerland where theAustralian bush is depicted as a place that will crush your spirit and kill you without hesitation.
In a way, both films reflect our ambivalence towards a large part of this nation that many of us only ever view from a safe distance on the TV screen.
The Silver Brumby airs at 9:30am, Saturday 16 October on SBS World Movies, and again at 7:30pm, Friday 22 October on NITV. Strangerland airs at 8:30pm, Thursday 21 October on NITV.
When two of artist Barbora Kysilkova’s most valuable paintings are stolen from a gallery at Frogner in Oslo, the police are able to find the thief after a few days, but the paintings are nowhere to be found. Barbora goes to the trial in hopes of finding clues, but instead she ends up asking the thief if she can paint a portrait of him. This will be the start of a very unusual friendship. Over three years, the cinematic documentary follows the incredible story of the artist looking for her stolen paintings, while at the same time turning the thief into art.