Directed by: Rachel Perkins (One Night the Moon)
Starring: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, "Missy" Higgins, Geoffrey Rush, Deborah Mailman
Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae (2009) is a curiosity, if nothing else. I mean, it’s not everyday that you see an “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” Aboriginal musical that also boasts Geoffrey Rush as a scenery-chewing priest with a dodgy German accent. Of course, there’s probably a reason for that—oh, something about a limited target audience, I imagine. But as a colorful break from the ordinary, the film has its merits. And when I say colorful, I’m not whistling “Waltzing Matilda.” This thing is so alive with not just color but color that it nearly hurts your eyes. It looks a bit like the wedding festivities in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) on acid, which isn’t entirely surprising since the movie’s heart belongs to Bollywood and the movie is set in the psychedelic 1960s, partly taking place in a flower-festooned hippie van.
Now, all of the foregoing may fairly be viewed as either a plus or a warning—depending on your outlook. Personally, I feel a little of both responses. On the plus side, it’s a nice little story with a pair of pleasant, if unremarkable, leads; some excellent supporting players (especially, the remarkably charismatic Ernie Dingo); and the aforementioned Geoffrey Rush high jinks. The songs are on the “OK, but especially memorable” side, with the notable exception of “I Just Want to Be,” which is either memorable or so forced on you that you think it is memorable. And this is where the film has its major problem. It forces its jollity on you with something like the ferocity of Mamma Mia! (2008) and its prison-camp-commandant level of “you vill enjoy dis whether you like it or not” attitude. Fortunately, Bran Nue Dae has the good sense to only be 81-minutes long and is blessed with an unassuming “amateur night in Perth” quality (and that’s at its most cosmopolitan).
The story is beyond simple and shy on the believable. Essentially, there’s Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie), who’s in love with Rosie (Aussie singer Jessica Mauboy), but is too timid and too cowed by his mother’s desire that he become a priest that he loses her to the less repressed Lester (Dan Sultan). So Willie goes to priest school under the tutelage of Father Benedictus (Rush). Well, not only does Willie not want to be a priest, but Benedictus is thoroughly unlikable, so Willie tells him off (in song and dance, natch) and runs away. The rest of the movie concerns Willie’s adventures on his way home, Benedictus pursuing him and a happy ending with more coincidences than you can count.
The film is based on an apparently popular play, but one that I can’t escape feeling is kind of the Australian equivalent of an Up with People tour. That said, it’s only fair to note that the film is not entirely an empty confection. In fact, it’s pretty much to the point as concerns the attempts to assimilate and forcibly Christianize the Aboriginal people, depriving them of both their land and their cultural identity, but it hides its anger under jaunty music and colorful characters. Maybe that’s the best approach.
Rachel Perkins’ direction is adequate and then some, but she can’t escape coming across too often as kind of a half-baked Baz Luhrmann. And she either couldn’t rein in her actors’ tendency to play to the back row, or she didn’t want to. I suspect this is the way the stage version is played and the film merely follows its lead, but that’s just a guess. There’s the even scarier possibility that this is toned down, but I don’t want to think about that. In the end, Bran Nue Dae is a pleasant little picture that’s hard to dislike—and if you’re in the mood for something out of the ordinary, it’s certainly that. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug use.