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Film Review: ‘Australia Day’

On Australia’s national holiday, three ethnically diverse youths each learn that beneath patriotism lie more sinister truths.

An ambitious and powerful, if necessarily convenient, multi-character drama in the mold of 2006 Oscar-winner “Crash,” “Australia Day” is a meditation on cultural diversity and the questioning of national identity. As such, it holds a mirror up to contemporary Australian society and offers those unfamiliar with its tensions a relatively factual dramatic experience. Festivals would do well to find a berth for the film, and distributors around the world would offer audiences the opportunity to learn about a darker facet of life in the Lucky Country.

Australia Day is the nation’s sometimes controversial national celebration. Marking the start of European settlement, it has evolved to represent everything from chest-pumping nationalism to citizenship ceremonies to a reflection of the impact that settlement has had on Australia’s indigenous population.

These facets of the day’s activities form the subtext of the busy screenplay. In a lower-working-class Brisbane suburb, three teenagers are independently running for their lives. Fourteen-year-old Aboriginal April Tucker (Miah Madden) has just crawled out of a wrecked car she and her sister Katee, who died in the crash, stole to escape their abusive father. Seventeen-year-old Persian boy Sami Ghaznavi (Elias Anton) has been mistakenly fingered for drugging and raping a white girl, Chloe (Isabelle Cornish), and has been abducted by her vengeful older brother Dean (Sean Keenan). Also fleeing is 19-year-old Chinese woman Lan (Jenny Wu), whose parents back home had enrolled her in an English course that turned out to be a sham and landed her in a brothel against her will.

Each story ducks and weaves its way to intertwining climaxes. April is being pursued by Sonya Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens), a career cop of indigenous heritage who’s familiar with her case and both frustrated and now guilty at her inability to get the girls away from their dad. Mackenzie, in turn, is being warned off the case by Det. Sgt. Mitchell Collyer (Matthew le Nevez).

There’s friction between Dean and his younger brother Jason over what to do with Sami, even as Lan is scooped up off the street by beleaguered and increasingly desperate fourth-generation cattle farmer Terry Friedman (Aussie institution Bryan Brown).

Films of this scope must usually rely to some extent on narrative conveniences to justify the overlap of stories, and in that regard Stephen M. Irwin’s script is no different. One example: Collyer turns out to be Friedman’s son. The challenge is clearly understood by currently hot director Kriv Stenders (the smash hit “Red Dog”), who emphasizes naturalistic acting and an unflaggingly propulsive pace that leaves little time to question coincidence. Also to the film’s credit is the fact that each of the stories is clearly delineated and coalesces logically, if occasionally shot through with melodrama.

The members of the huge cast are each given an opportunity to flex their acting chops, and cinematographer Geoffrey Hall’s near-constant Steadicam along with Stender’s deft blocking combine to create an immersive mise en scene for the performances.

“Australia Day” will screen domestically in cinemas and subsequently air on cabler Foxtel later this year. Stenders and Irwin also are collaborating on an upcoming two-part contemporary small-screen re-imagining of the 1971 Aussie cult classic “Wake in Fright” with Keenan and David Wenham.

Film Review: ‘Australia Day’

Production

(Australia) A Foxtel Original Drama presentation, in association with Screen Australia, Screen Queensland, of a Hoodlum production. Producers: Nathan Mayfield, Leigh McGrath, Tracey Robertson, Edward Herbert. Executive producers: Mayfield, Robertson, McGrath, Deanne Weir, Penny Win.

Director: Kriv Stenders. Screenplay: Stephen M. Irwin. Camera (color), Geoffrey Hall. Editor: Nick Meyers. Music: Matteo Zingales.