Do we still feel for Darryl Kerrigan in a housing affordability crisis? Tell him he’s dreamin’

Did Darryl Kerrigan negatively gear his holiday house in Boonie Doon? A ridiculous question, of course, given negative gearing applies to rented properties – not vacant pied-à-terre’s built for the purposes of serenity-filled weekends away. Unless the blue collar battler dabbled in some Dennis Denuto-enabled tax rorts (which, let’s face it, is a possibility) it is reasonable to assume he fairly paid his way.

Films “age” in different ways, some better than others. There’s the old truism that while we ourselves, in body and mind, are engaged in a process of constant changing, films remain ever the same: frozen in time, hermetically sealed. So when we say a film ages we really refer to the way it fits (or doesn’t) the contemporary zeitgeist, from how it looks (the most common grounds for observation) to whether its themes still resonate.

Last week The Castle turned 20 years old. Visually the beloved Australian classic was never much to look at: tattered and timeworn, with a low-fi aesthetic akin to a well-loved family photograph. It’s not the film’s appearance that places it massively out of step with 2017, to the point at which its sentiments now feel utterly quaint. It’s the terms with which the film asks us to accept its premise as a David and Goliath-esque story about a supposedly asset-poor (but emotionally rich) family fighting the fat cats.

“If director Rob Sitch’s smash-hit comedy was about the Great Australian Dream it seems pretty clear that dream needs to be readjusted.”

In these grim days of the housing affordability crisis, with Sydney the second least affordable city in the world and Melbourne the seventh, do we still feel sorry for Kerrigans? Put it this way. Darryl owns two large family houses, his own business (Kerrigan’s Towing), a speedboat (the beloved ‘Sealady’) and not one, two but at least four cars forever parked in his enormously large driveway.

A hell of a bounty, particularly for a guy supposedly down the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not using these observations to criticise the film (which I love) or the protagonist, a decent bloke fighting to do the best he can for his family. So much so you almost forget this guy (through his lawyer) invokes the profoundly significant issue of Indigenous land rights to save his own slice of suburbia.

Perhaps we can use the occasion of The Castle’s 20th birthday to consider how far Australian society has evolved over the last two decades when it comes to how we think about the big things we own, or once intended to own. And the realities of younger Australians wanting to enter the market to purchase their own castle. If director Rob Sitch’s smash-hit comedy was about the Great Australian Dream (i.e. owning a house bought at a reasonable price, located a reasonable distance from where the owners work) it seems pretty clear that dream needs to be readjusted.

I found a property for sale that, Kerrigan style, is almost literally over the fence from the runway. Except it’s not a house; it’s a unit. And it’ll set you back $1.75 million.

When Darryl Kerrigan cried out “you can’t buy what I’ve got!” in a courtroom in 1997, he was talking about the emotional and sentimental value associated with his biggest possession; the idea his property at 3 Highview Crescent, Coolaroo is not a house but a home. (His argument is actually a bit flakey. If we accept that you cannot buy what he’s got, we must also accept that nor could you sell it or lose it by compulsory acquisition – the family would continue to be strong even if the house perished. But no matter.)

Now we can accept his words at face value. For almost everybody yet to enter the housing market, he’s right: they can’t buy what he’s got. Literally. Without a very rich mum and dad they will would never be able to afford it. Want to own a five bedroom house close to where you work? Tell him he’s dreaming. How about a second one for relaxing lakeside weekends away?

Some of the jokes in The Castle make light of the proximity the Kerrigan’s fake chimney-equipped abode has to the airport, which is literally over the fence. The location, explains the narrator Dale (Stephen Curry) “was going to be part of a major housing development that never got up. They reckon the planes put people off.”

SupportBadgePerhaps they wouldn’t put people off anymore. The existence of planes doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on the housing market in Mascot, Sydney, the location of Sydney Airport. Currently the median price for a house there is $1.4 million. I found a property for sale that, Kerrigan style, is almost literally over the fence from the runway. Except it’s not a house; it’s a unit. And it’ll set you back $1.75 million.

One of the characters in The Castle, an old fellow named Jack (Monty Maizels) announces he was offered $60,000 for his house, which his companions regard as a huge sum of money. It is reasonable to assume Darryl paid somewhere in the vicinity of $30,000 for his Highview Crescent home, signifying a handsome, digit-adding appreciation over time. If he had bought instead at the nearby suburb of Pascoe Vale (a 25-minute drive to Melbourne CBD, compared to 30 minutes from Coolaroo) his place would now be worth around $850,000.

It would be tempting to say Darryl and his family were hard-working pennypinchers, never spending a dime on unnecessary items. But what about those cars and the boat? What about the jousting sticks, the spiral staircase, the rifle that cost $180, the apparently hereditary addiction to buying useless crap from the Trading Post?

“But this is not iffy. This is as clear as day. It is right and fair that a family be allowed to live in its own house. That is justice.”

These things are a tad more expensive than avocado on toast, the purchasing of which one business adviser – in real life, not in the movies – controversially associated with the reason young people can no longer afford property. In other words: a Baby Boomer responding to the housing affordability crisis not with empathy or wisdom, but with a Kerriganism – telling others a lot less lucky than people like himself to “suffer in ya jocks.”

The Castle is a fictitious story about fictitious people. But the film resonated because it felt highly authentic. Darryl Kerrigan was not just somebody we could relate to; there was a sense his story – and his struggles – were in some way our own. I’m deliberately using past tense. Rather than feeling empathy for a guy with two family houses and a driveway full of vehicles, who was offered not just the market price for his house but well above that amount, many if not most of us would now feel insanely jealous.

At one point in the film Kerrigan spoke directly on the subject of morality, with relation to the ownership of his – or any – family castle. “I know sometimes what is right and fair is not clear-cut,” he said. “It’s a bit iffy. But this is not iffy. This is as clear as day. It is right and fair that a family be allowed to live in its own house. That is justice.” In the ’90s audiences were nodding their heads when they heard that line: yes, yes, that is justice! Are they still nodding their heads now?

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4 responses to “Do we still feel for Darryl Kerrigan in a housing affordability crisis? Tell him he’s dreamin’

  1. A bunch of cheap cars owned by the adult members of the family is significant…how?

    One of the things I love about our country is the true sense of fairness embedded in its decent people. After years of very hard and very damaging (to me) work I had built my business to a point where I could afford a beautiful expensive car. I got it second hand but it still cost a bloody fortune. It handled like a dream, had more power than a nuclear aircraft carrier, looked stunning and was safer than an airbag factory.
    It was some kind of reward for the hard work and harsh sacrifices of building a business from nothing. And it was a symbol to my kids. They loved it too.

    In the back of my mind I wondered if the morally vain offendanistas would express their contempt for it. Not that I gave a damn of course. You seldom become successful in any way worrying about the opinions of others.

    The fact is the only comments expressed were positive and congratulatory…and these included those from random strangers. It told me that the genuinely fair minded Australian was not yet extinct.

  2. In the Castle his 30 year old kids still lived at home and Darryl Kerigan was a somewhat successful self employed business man in a fibro/weatherboard cottage backing onto the airport run way. Also lay off Dennis Denuto. He didn’t do anything to justify the slanderous character assassination you have subjected him to. Dennis was legit man. You missed the point.

  3. This feels like a mighty stretch – we should resent someone for owning a house at all? Or a house and a cabin? And living with people that have cars? If it’s tongue in cheek, I’ve missed the joke.

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