Another Tim Winton novel heads to the screen, this time starring Mia Wasikowska and directed by 'The Dry' filmmaker Robert Connolly.
December 28, 2022
Films about humanity's affinity with animals are films about our ties to the natural world — and doesn't Blueback splash that truth around. Plunging from The Dry into the wet, writer/director Robert Connolly reteams with Eric Bana for another page-to-screen adaptation of a homegrown book; this is another movie inseparable from its landscape, too, again exploring the impact people have upon it. This time, however, Bana isn't the star. He's memorable as larrikin abalone diver and fisherman 'Mad' Macka, and this Tim Winton-based feature would've benefited from more of his presence, but the Dirty John actor is firmly in supporting mode. Set against the enticing Western Australian coast as the author's work tends to be, this is a picture about the sea's thrall, existential importance and inherent sense of connection — as filtered through the bond between a girl and a wild blue groper, plus the evolving relationship between that same child and her eco-warrior mother.
Mia Wasikowska (Bergman Island) plays Blueback's fish-befriending protagonist as an adult, with the text's Abel becoming Abby here. Radha Mitchell (Girl at the Window) shares the screen as Dora, her widowed mother, early in the film's year-hopping timeline. Still, in their second of three movies in succession — arriving before upcoming The Dry sequel Force of Nature — Connolly and Bana dip back into familiar territory. Obvious swaps are evident, including a beachside rather than a farming community, and atrocities against the planet and its wildlife instead of crimes against people, but it's easy to see Blueback's appeal as a reunion project. Among the key differences as Abby and Dora fight to save their town and its aquatic treasures, still battling wrongs to strive for what's right: this is an overtly and eagerly family-friendly affair.
When Blueback introduces Abby, she's a marine biologist trying to stop the earth's coral reefs from being destroyed. Then comes a call from home about her mum. In Longboat Bay, Dora (played in her elder years by Liz Alexander, Clickbait) has suffered a stroke — and, in a too-neat move, that medical situation is used to inspire Abby's memories of why she chose her line of work in the first place. While Winton's novella initially hit shelves in 1997, justifying someone caring for the environment is a very 2020s touch. Being concerned about the planet doesn't require an origin story for a second, but they're the tales that flicker across screens in droves of late. Not all heroes wear capes, yet movies about valiant deeds and worthy attitudes keep feeling obliged to couch them in such terms.
Wasikowska is sincere and affecting as the older Abby, her performance bathed in equal parts melancholy and determination, but Blueback's best sequences don't always involve the Judy & Punch and Crimson Peak talent. Connolly has cast his three versions of Abby well; taking on the character as a pre-teen and then a high schooler, and conveying resolve buoyed by curiosity and youthful hope in the process, Wolf Like Me's Ariel Donoghue and screen debutant Ilsa Fogg are each commanding and compelling. The biggest scene-stealers? The intricate mechanised puppetry by Creature Technology Company, which brings the movie's namesake to life, plus Rick Rifici's (Facing Monsters) wondrous underwater cinematography. Indeed, Blueback's lack of subtlety about Dora's health is so unnecessary because the film's strikingly shot and staged moments between a kid and a mesmerising fish communicate everything that needs saying anyway, and genuinely make the audience feel as Abby feels.
Having read Winton's book over the past quarter-century isn't a prerequisite for knowing how Abby and Blueback's connection flows. Although this is just the latest movie sparked by the writer's prose — see also: Dirt Music, Breath and anthology The Turning in the past decade alone, the latter of which Connolly produced and Wasikowska directed a segment of — spying Winton's usual love of water, the WA coast, the environment and coming-of-age tales isn't, either. The author's regular hallmarks float through Blueback, but a child forging a sense of fellowship with another critter, loving their domain and discovering themselves along the way is its trusty anchor. Cinema in general, and Australian cinema specifically, is so fond of this storyline that the resulting flicks are practically their own genre. Where the two versions of Storm Boy, the Red Dog pictures and Oddball have all paddled before, this feature now swims (with ripples of overseas efforts Free Willy and Pete's Dragon as well).
On a varied resume that spans The Bank, Balibo, and TV shows The Slap and Barracuda, too, Connolly also helmed Paper Planes. Consequently, as that film illustrated with its underdog chronicle about mastering a new skill in the pursuit of childhood glory, he knows a thing or two about working with well-worn all-ages formulas that've been sweeping over screens for generations. As glaringly as the sun bouncing off a glistening expanse of blue as far as the eye can see, oh-so-much about Blueback fits an easy template. Chief among them: the conflict between the younger Dora and shady developer Costello (Erik Thomson, How to Please a Woman), who wants to snap up the land that Abby's family's shack stands on, reshape the shoreline to the detriment of its marine life and make a bundle, all with help from nefarious spearfishers. Thankfully, there's also an ocean's worth of heart beating within Connolly's current release, especially whenever the titular creature makes an enchanting appearance.
An unflinchingly earnest movie about valuing the natural world and stopping its decimation, as told with visual splendour that helps make its point through spectacular below-the-sea imagery, yet struggling with nuance: yes, add Avatar: The Way of Water to the lengthy list of films that Blueback recalls. This Aussie feature premiered on the festival circuit before James Cameron's 13-years-in-the-making blockbuster, though. It's also a quieter and more tender experience. Nonetheless, while scenic lensing by Nude Tuesday's Andrew Commis catches the eye on dry land as well, Blueback similarly gets caught adrift above the tide. Blunt eco-focused flicks aren't going anywhere, however, and nor should they. As Dora and Abby do for their patch of sand, friendly groper and the blue rock we all call home, this movie is campaigning — broadly, simplistically yet still engagingly, and as a fable for viewers young and old alike.
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