For many years, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 psychological thriller Wake in Fright was considered Australia’s great “lost” film.
The movie, based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, was met with strong reviews at its premiere, but wasn’t a massive commercial success. Somewhere along the line, it became “lost”, and most copies were destroyed by the early 1990s.
It wasn’t until 2009 that a copy of the film was finally given a wide cinematic release, and a release on DVD and Blu-ray. Now it’s available to stream on Stan and a range of other online platforms, and has found its place in the libraries of Australian film buffs everywhere.
Since then, the unforgettable images and characters from the film have re-entered the cultural consciousness so strongly that Channel Ten recently decided a remake of the film was a potential ratings winner.
It seems they were a little off-the-mark in that regard: the first part of their two-episode mini-series premiered last night to just 408,000 viewers. It seems the Wake in Fright brand is still too much of a cult fascination to have demographic-smashing appeal.
The miniseries has received some glowing reviews alongside some more middling ones. It’s true that the remake is a rather bold choice for commercial TV: much like the original film, the miniseries is not driven by great narrative development, but rather by an increasingly claustrophobic and suffocating sense of entrapment.
As in the 1971 film, the protagonist is the young, handsome school teacher John Grant (Sean Keenan in the remake), who is returning home to Sydney after a stint of teaching in the outback. He’s looking forward to reuniting with his girlfriend, but soon after he sets off on the long drive, he hits a kangaroo, severely damaging his car.
He finds himself stuck in the rough fictional mining town of Bundanyabba, with no car and very little money to his name.
Bundanyabba — or “the Yabba” as the locals call it — is the stuff of outback legends; so bizarrely violent and wryly funny that it could almost be a real a place. It could be any number of remote Australian towns, where there’s little to do but main-line beer at the local RSL and play two-up.
John quickly meets the local cop Jock Crawford (David Wenham), who shouts him a few rounds, declaring that he gets all his beer for free when he’s on the job.
John soon ends up seduced by the booze and gambling, and finds increasing trouble with some of the locals. He’s trapped, both literally and figuratively in this violent and constantly surprising place.
Keenan is very good as a deeply flawed protagonist fighting for his life, while there are brilliantly scary supporting performances from the likes of Gary Sweet, Robyn Malcolm, David Wenham, Alex Dimitriades and Anna Samson as a particularly terrifying miner called Mick.
On the one hand, it’s thrilling to see this style of filmmaking unfold on one of our commercial broadcasters; on the other, the biggest obstacle the mini-series faces is the commercial TV medium itself.
Unlike other reviews written of the first episode, this assessment isn’t based on a preview copy, but rather the live broadcast. A live broadcast interrupted by regular commercial breaks.
Director Kriv Stenders struggles to find a way to maintain the tension and mounting helplessness of John’s situation from commercial break to commercial break. It’s stylishly directed, with a clear reverence for the original, and Ten gave the program a long time to settle in before breaking for the first commercial.
But how do you tell this kind of story that needs to snowball forth in one very simple and straight-forward narrative, when you have to stop every ten or so minutes? It’s not a question Stenders seems quite able to answer.
The other major question hanging over the miniseries is a much simpler one: why?
Why remake this story in a fashion that, on the basis of the first episode, doesn’t seem to add all that much to the source material? The answer may well be that the filmmakers wanted to introduce a new generation of Australians — and those of older generations who missed out at its first release — to this fascinating and deeply unsettling story about the places and people at the heart of our nation.
There’s really very little that’s gained by updating the story to present day — it’s set in a place that’s been left behind by the fashions of the time — and no matter how good the performances and attractive the cinematography, it doesn’t really justify its own existence.
It’s still a very enjoyable and unusual piece of television, but if you’ve seen the original it’s not clear why you’d need to see this version.
If you want to know what Wake in Fright is all about, it’s worth checking out Kotcheff’s original: it stands up surprisingly well, and is still a rather bold piece of filmmaking. I don’t think Channel Ten would ever achieve any kind of ratings success by airing Kotcheff’s film, but it should certainly be seen by a broader audience.
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