Based on the stage musical of the same name, Bran Nue Dae is a startlingly confronting yet whimsical entry into Australian film.
Never have I seen an Australian film so daring, yet so conventional. Bran Nue Dae is a musical, with all of the common traits associated with the genre – people spontaneously burst into song (which always challenges my suspension of disbelief), we have two young lovers who are separated, some nasty competition for our young Romeo and a some near pantomimic humour to round things off nicely.
But the content is remarkable. Bran Nue Dae is a film about being an Aborigine in Australia. Set in the 60s, it deals with Christian indoctrination, alcoholism, corporal punishment and racism generally – all through musical comedy. Credit is due to the writers, who have crafted a tale that is celebratory rather than patronising or depressing. It’s one thing to write a downbeat tale about the woes of any given minority but it’s another to use positive reinforcement to drive a message home (Juno was another recent film to successfully navigate this tricky journey.)
Young Willie is sent away from his home town of Broome to Catholic school in Perth where he is to train to become a priest. Father Benedict (Geoffrey Rush) wants nothing but the best for his flock, but unfortunately ‘best’ translates to being a good Christian white man. Willie very quickly decides he needs to make his way back home to the girl he loves (Rosie – Jessica Mauboy) and the people with whom he belongs, so after breaking out in song (as you do), he breaks out of school.
Along the way he’ll come across many who’ll want to tell him how he should act. He escapes Father Benedict only to meet other homeless alcoholic Aborigines, a couple of white stoner hippies who gladly leap from one ideological state to another and a woman who wants nothing more than to have wild sex under the Condom Tree.
This is a brilliant piece of Australian film, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Within the first ten minutes we’re bouncing along to a song that promotes – in no uncertain terms – the use of condoms. There’s drug use, binge drinking and swearing, yet this has to be one of the best Australian films aimed at a teenage audience I’ve seen in years – more importantly, it’s aimed at young Aborigines, too. Bran Nue Dae encourages young people to make the right decisions – but on their own terms. It’s never preachy nor does it provide a definitive template of the way in which we should live our lives.
The supporting cast are fantastic. Rush is perfect as Father Benedict, Deborah Mailman gives an edgy performance as Roxanne, Missy Higgins is great as one of the idealistic hippies and Ernie Dingo is perfect as Uncle Tadpole, the man who escorts Willie on his journey home. The song and dance numbers are great and none outstay their welcome. The film is a bit like one long video clip – its rushed nature may keep some viewers at arm’s length (though it’s not on par with say, Moulin Rouge).
Bran Nue Dae is one of the most important Australian films in decades. It might make audiences feel more than a little uncomfortable, but maybe that’s the point. It’s a film that deals with Aboriginal issues without resorting to the two easiest knee jerk arguments, either by condemning white people for destroying the indigenous population’s spirit and way of life, or blaming Aborigines for simply not ‘trying harder’ to be more white. It takes a much more original and intelligent route – everyone has work to do, and there’s no one way to do it.Rating: