Jasper Jones movie review: a modern Australian classic

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Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel Jasper Jones is a bit of a modern classic, telling a dark, moving and often quite funny story of prejudice in Corrigan, a small West Australian town in the 1960s.

SupportBadgeThe book has picked up several awards and plenty of adult and teenage fans since its release, and has been called, perhaps a little reductively, Australia’s answer to To Kill a Mockingbird. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, it features a young protagonist, 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, who comes to the realisation that justice isn’t as simple as they once believed. 

And much like To Kill a Mockingbird, it now has an intelligent, lively, and deeply affecting screen adaptation.

There’s a strongly held fear and anger at the core of his community, but Charlie (Levi Miller), a young, bookish caucasian boy, has rarely had his eyes opened to it. That is until Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath), a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who seems to be blamed for everything bad in Corrigan, knocks on Charlie’s window late one night.

“[Toni] Collette, in particular, is heart-breaking as Charlie’s oft-neglected but loving mum Ruth.”

He takes Charlie to the scene of a terrible crime and begs for his help in covering it up, fearing he’ll be blamed for the crime he didn’t commit. Jasper knows he’ll have to solve the mystery himself and only fellow outsider Charlie can get him out of this mess.

The film doesn’t fully explain why Jasper asks for Charlie’s help when the pair barely know each other, nor why Charlie immediately decides to keep Jasper’s secret and dive into the midst of a dangerous web of lies.

But once you accept that premise, it’s a wonderfully engaging ride, using a murder mystery to explore the dark underbelly of Australian society in the 1960s.

Director Rachel Perkins’ film is remarkably restrained for a narrative packed so full of twists and turns, and that’s due largely to excellent and firmly realistic performances. It certainly has moments of visual flair, and manages to look at familiar Australian settings from surprising angles (both literally and figuratively), but it’s the dialogue, straight-forward storytelling, and scene work that drives this film.

The presence of Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving in pivotal supporting roles lend the film some of its best moments. Collette, in particular, is heart-breaking as Charlie’s oft-neglected but loving mum Ruth, reaching her own breaking point as the small-town summer heats up and starts to suffocate.

The younger cast members are all fantastic, but Levi Miller’s turn as Charlie is astonishing, carrying the entire film with a mixture of intense, nervous energy and curiosity.

Perkins has stayed very true to the novel, with a screenplay penned by Silvey himself and Shaun Grant, keeping Charlie at the absolute centre. When he sees the abuse doled out to Jasper, or his best friend Jeffrey Lu (a very charming and funny Kevin Long) and his Vietnamese family, it’s really only a brief glimpse of what these characters go through.

This is a story of racial prejudice told through the eyes of a young white protagonist, but putting an Indigenous filmmaker like Perkins into the directors chair brings a new and enriching perspective to the narrative: the way she juxtaposes young Jeffrey’s success in saving the Corrigan cricket team, with the way his parents are treated by the town’s racists, reminds that acceptance of difference in Australia is often conditional and only temporary.

At first, given that Miller’s Charlie is so charismatic, intelligent and likeable, it feels as though the film might go down the white saviour path, but it becomes obvious soon enough that Charlie isn’t equipped to save anybody.

The characters who have been cast aside by this town have small wins and moments of redemption, but the fault lines in Corrigan ran far too deep for Charlie to even start solving the biggest problems.

THIS REVIEW WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE

Jasper Jones is in cinemas from March 2

15 responses to “Jasper Jones movie review: a modern Australian classic

  1. Prior to seeing the film, I knew little of the Jasper Jones story however I was struck by the many references that had been made to it being Australia’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Whilst similarities can be drawn what really stood out for me was the efforts the film itself sought to make this reference, albeit at a somewhat subliminal level.

    An obvious linkage was when Charlie is searching for evidence to uncover the killer he is seen in the library researching a number of sources which included Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. At the same time Eliza is seeking to access and “research” another book by Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    These two Capote novels serve as a link between Charlie and Eliza. In part it establishes their companionship and drives their shared journey of discovery.

    These two novels also serve as a link back to To Kill a Mockingbird. When Capote was researching the crimes that inspired In Cold Blood he was accompanied by Harper Lee during his visits to Holcomb, Kansas. Their companionship and shared journey of discovery has been well documented.

  2. I enjoyed the book and was looking forward to the movie, which I found riveting and involving. Sadly in a movie there is just not time to explore the lives of the minor characters, eg. the Lus, and I was glad that they included Jeffrey’s great cricketing achievement. However the wonderful dialogue between Charlie and Jeffrey in the book was treated sketchily because it was outside the main plot lines, and I missed it. Overall though, very true to the book, and thought it was wellcast.

  3. Far and away the best Australian film ever and instantly in my top five all time favs. Finally we have a director who understands how to use music effectively to build suspense and draw us into the characters and situations. Beautifully shot, especially the night sequences by the billabong. The whole film had a magical quality for me.

  4. After enjoying the book I have been looking forwards to watching the film…and was not disappointed. The characterisations by both the young and older, more experienced actors were exactly as I imagined them and often exhibited a level of complexity and dimension that made them entirely believable. The world of a small country town in the 60’s has been brilliantly recreated and there was much excellent cinematography, notably in the nighttime bush scenes and the New Years Eve celebrations. Sound and lighting effects are appropriate and seamless.This is much more than a simple coming of age story. The narrative is original and multi-layered and deals with such universal themes as racism, bigotry, family tensions, ignorance, guilt and innocence and young love.Far and away one of the best Australian films in recent years.

  5. A beautifully shot film, with magnetic performances by the young cast … but the story was full of holes. A teenage girl goes missing, and the authorities suspect foul play, because they bring up police from the city and talk about ‘dragging the river’. Yet there appears to be no effort made by anyone to search for the girl. The father seems to just go off to work as if nothing is amiss; and the younger sister just swans around renewing her library books and going to fireworks displays as if nothing is wrong, yet she, of all people, knows there is. Toni Collette’s character seems to go from being very happy – dancing with Charlie, playing cards , to suddenly being so unhappy she has to leave town. Meanwhile, chief suspect Jasper escapes custody, but nobody goes looking for him, either. Finally, Charlie’s bedroom in the middle of the harsh West Australian summer has louvered windows and no fly screens? He should have been dead from mosquito bites. And Eliza is sitting in her room on 31 Dec with the (fly screen less) window shut?

  6. First I must say I found the film a pleasant way to spend two hours. But just as I understand it’s not possible to be partly pregnant, Jasper Jones in wanting us to believe that a film can be partly plausible. The basic premise of Charlie and Jasper being together is very difficult to acccept. In the film, Corrigan never looks genuinely small town – or is it shown as a bigger town than it should be. The film also has too much plot. All of Hugo Weaving’s character is little more than a red herring. I won’t mention the credibility of the cricket match. Where Jasper Jones really glowed was in the characterisation of Geoffrey and Dan Wyllie as Charlie’s father. Sorry to have reservations, especially as I’ve always loved the novel and recommended it to so many friends.Barry

  7. I have seen the film and it is all that has been said and more. I think it easily surpasses the much awarded Moonlight .
    For one, you will be able to hear every word of the dialogue!
    And for two, it is both thoughtful and thought provoking.

  8. Five stars for this magnificent film. In this deplorable era of mumbling, I understood every word uttered by every character. The camera work, especially in the karri forest at nightime, was bewitching. The author of the book did a remarkable job of transferring to the difficult medium of a film screenplay. The film and its many talented actors must sweep the pool at AFI Awards and it deserves international acclaim. Rachel Perkins, keep bringing her on!

    1. Unfortunately, the clarity of the dialogue was TOO clear in the case of Jasper Jones who obviously sounded well educated, but he was illiterate!

  9. Saw the film at a pre-release through Belvoir st theatre. Absolutely loved it. The way it is put together is actually amazing. Best film I have seen for years.

  10. very interesting review. personally, the trailers i’ve seen have enticed me to go check it out. congratulations to all of those involved! it’s a wonderful tale…

  11. Hey Ben,
    I know its not the done thing, but I just wanted to say a big thanks for your review. It means a great deal to our team that you appreciate what we have made. Rachel

    1. Just keep up the amazing work Rachel… if you are in Darwin (or Alice) it would be great to interview you for VAMPtv (arts vodcast for NT remote schools)… check vamptv.com.au…

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