Sunday, 6 November 2011
After winning awards and wowing audiences at Cannes and film festivals across the world, Ivan Sen’s remarkable Toomelah got its first UK screening at Leeds International Film Festival. Featuring a stunning performance from ten year old Daniel Connors in his screen debut, the film will gain a wider UK release in late November.
Toomelah is one of Australia’s poorest communities. The ramshackle township is populated almost exclusively by the unemployed, the dilapidated houses and static caravans are barely standing and life for young Daniel is extremely difficult. His father is a drunk who seemingly lives on the roadside, his mother a negligent weed smoker and he hardly attends school. Hardship and profanity are the norm.
Seen from the point of view of Daniel (Daniel Connors), Toomelah focuses largely on the youngster’s relationship with local tough-guy Linden (Christopher Edwards). He’s a small-time pusher and wannabe gangster with a collection of half-hearted hoodlum friends. Daniel is adopted as a kind of mascot by the gang as they drive around town, go fishing, get drunk and occasionally manage to sell some drugs. He later becomes dramatically involved in a conflict which stems from the return of Bruce (Dean Daley Jones) – a convicted criminal fresh from jail and keen to muscle in on the local drugs market.
With the focus so tight on one young character, it was vital that director Ivan Sen uncover a child actor capable of carrying a whole movie. And in Daniel Connors he has certainly done so. He’s an utterly compelling presence: a mesmerising blend of wide-eyed curiosity flashes of violent temper and old-beyond-his-years cynicism. His strong accent demands that his dialogue is subtitled, but the power of his words (when he chooses to use them) is undeniably powerful. His role is often that of the silent observer, but unlike many young actors his focus never shifts from the action – he’s switched on throughout and his gaze is always worth following.
Connors’ best moments in the film often occur alone, during which times he is literally the centre of attention. One scene, in particular, features the youngster shadow-boxing on his threadbare lawn. He skips, weaves and throws punches, the concentration etched on his face. His efforts to appear tough, however, are completely undermined by his feeble physique – his skinny legs look like knotted pieces of string and his oversized trainers serve only to make him look still more pathetic.
At times it’s easy to forget that Toomelah is a work of fiction. The handheld camera is deeply involved in the action and the acting performances so realistic that it feels more like a documentary. Shot on location, it’s easy to see why Toomelah was once described as having the worst living conditions in Australia. The script, too, apes reality and reflects the characters brilliantly. There cannot be many films containing as much profanity as this one: swearing is used as punctuation throughout but never seems faked or unwarranted. It’s exactly how you would expect these characters to talk and fits perfectly. It would not be surprising at all to discover that much of this dialogue was improvised.
The style and storyline of Toomelah are reminiscent of the Debra Granik’s wonderful Winter’s Bone. The bleak hopelessness and slight storylines of both films are made bearable by some truly wonderful acting performances and are brave enough to place young characters at the heart of their adult narratives. It’s a brave move, but Toomelah, certainly, could never have worked as a movie were it told from a more run-of-the-mill point of view.
Although never explicit, the film also touches on the scandalous treatment of Aboriginal people at the hands of European settlers. Key in this is Daniel’s disturbed elderly Aunt Cindy, recently returned to her home town after being one of the ‘lost generation’ of children taken from their parents in order to raise them as European Australians. Her plight is not really explored, but her ghostly presence serves as a powerful reminder of the oppression suffered at the hands of the colonial powers.
It’s inevitable that Toomelah will reach a crescendo, but even that is underplayed.
Sadly, it’s also undermined by some extremely unrealistic sound effects. The power of the scene is completely diluted when something much more visceral and realistic would have been far more in keeping with the tone of the film up to that point. Use of sound is a little clumsy throughout the film, with non-diagetic music occasionally ill-fitting and often far too loud. Perhaps this was an attempt to increase the dramatic tension but it really wasn’t necessary.
Sadly, Sen’s singular artistic view – he used no crew at all and operated all the cameras himself – means that at times the editing seems slightly baggy. A couple of scenes last just a little too long and a more judicious editor might well have persuaded Sen to cut the last few scenes altogether: they add nothing to the plot other than attempting to answer a question which ought to have remained unresolved.
Director Ivan Sen has crafted a sedately paced but powerful piece of film. It’s unerringly bleak, ultimately offering little hope or redemption for any of the characters. But there is enough humour, pathos and charm to ensure that it genuinely reaches out to the audience, drawing them into a troubled and troublesome world – if only for a short time.