The true story of a charismatic Kelpie who united a mining community in North West Australia in the 1970s and '80s.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Louis De Bernières.

Fun family film mines the middle ground.

To the already extensive list of star-making turns from Australian actors that includes Judy Davis in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career and Russell Crowe in Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper, you can now add Koko the dog in Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog. A four legged thespian he may be, but this feel good outback flick is enhanced considerably by the performance of the lead canine, who has the laconic personality and quiet charisma that’s been a trademark of Australian screen stars all the way back to Chips Rafferty; the last redhead we produced this talented was Nicole Kidman.

With credit to trainer Luke Hura, who prepared the Kelpie for the nine week shoot in the dusty north of West Australia, Koko is in the majority of scenes in this fictionalised account of the dog whose traveling exploits around the iron ore hub of the Pilbara in the 1970s were enshrined after his death in 1979 with a statue in the port town of Dampier. That statue inspired British author Louis de Bernières, whose 2002 novella was adapted by screenwriter Jonathan Taplitz, who added back elements of Red Dog’s story to balance out a story that moves freely, and sometimes too swiftly, between comedy, romance and tragedy.

First seen calmly sitting on the road into Dampier – like all screen stars, Red Dog takes in everything the supporting cast has to offer before making his move – the titular star hitches a ride with new publicans, Jack and Maureen (Noah Taylor and Loene Carmen, reunited a quarter century or so after The Year My Voice Broke). More empathetic than the average miner, Red soon becomes the best friend to the local workers, a masculine collection of immigrants and boofheads who all need some understanding.

His story is told in flashback, as Red Dog lies dying in 1971 after ingesting strychnine (cause or fault is never pursued). Truck driver Tom (Luke Ford, nodding a great deal) arrives in town on the fateful night, and one after another the distraught locals share their memories with him. Tom hears, with the easy charm of many an Australian tall tale, about Red Dog and the man he finally chose as his master, American bus driver John (Josh Lucas).

I felt for Rachael Taylor, who as the mine’s new secretary has to compete with Red to be the love of John’s life, but it turns out that Taylor, a starlet not always challenged by her previous performances, gives a charming, open-hearted performance that defers to her lead instead of trying to outshine him. The story doesn’t miss an opportunity to extract sentiment from proceedings, and the cast smooth out these bumps, particularly John Batchelor as the beefy Peeto and Rohan Nichol’s sombre Jocko.

A PG-rated mining town in the 1960s is something of a conundrum, and aside from some wrestling and the evil caretakers of the caravan park, who hate dogs and love cats, there’s not a great deal of upset. (Everything featured in Tim Burstall’s 1979 classic The Last of the Knucklemen is genially excised here.) Still, just with his presence and intuition Red manages to cheer up a potential suicide and introduce a homesick Italian miner to his future wife. There are no super-powers, just a cheeky demeanour and a quick bark.

Having previously worked in low and even micro-budget filmmaking, Kriv Stenders combines the disparate cast and the vast landscape well. The last thing a film like Red Dog needs is showy technique or overt heavy-handedness. Instead, like the wandering canine, it passes through various emotional states without ever being too taxing. This is the most widely appealing Australian film since Bran Nue Dae, complete with a lovely Bill Hunter cameo, and hopefully Koko gets a chance to work here again before he’s whisked off the luxury kennels of Hollywood.

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In Cinemas 01 January 1970,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20