Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: "Bran Neu Dae"

"Bran Nue Dae" is based on a 1990 musical, the first to put Australian Aborigines at the center of a hit stage play filled with show-stopper tunes and spectacle. I think it probably worked better on the stage, though the new film version is pleasant enough.

I've always said that musicals rise or fall based on the appeal of individual songs. "Bran Nue Dae" has at least a couple that are eminently hummable, though I can't say I'm rushing out to buy the soundtrack.

The title is a phonetic pronunciation of "Brand New Day," and a tip of the hat to the legacy of white settlers who made it their mission to convert and integrate the native people Down Under. Often perpetrated under the yoke of Christianity, Aboriginal language and culture was suppressed.

Father Benedictus, played by Geoffrey Rush, is emblematic of the attitude of whites toward the Aborigine. He treats the boys at his school in Perth as wayward sheep in need of a stern hand, but underneath there's a condescending form of racism that makes him feel duty-bound to civilize these dark-skinned heathens -- white man's burden and all that twaddle.

His top pupil is Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a youth who's being groomed to become a priest, but who secretly yearns for a quiet life back in Broome, taking care of his mother, fishing with his friends, and romancing young Rosie.

Rosie is played by Jessica Mauboy, whose irresistible smile and heaven-sent pipes would make her a natural for "Australian Idol," if there is such a thing. (Wait, there is, I just Googled it -- she was on the show in 2006 and came in as runner-up.)

After a midnight raid of the school canteen goes awry, Willie flees in disgrace, meaning to make his way back to Broome. But how to tell his mother (Ningali Lawford) about his fall from grace? Unbeknownst to him, Father Benedictus is hot on his trail.

Willie falls in with Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), a roving vagabond who turns out to be his uncle; he offers songs and sage advice in between drinks. They're picked up by a pair of young hippies in a VW bus -- the girl is played by Missy Higgins, an Aussie singer of some following.

Directed and co-written by Rachel Perkins based on the stage version by Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles, "Bran Nue Dae" is a kooky, deliriously happy mix of happenstance and broadly-drawn characters who are apt to break into song at any given moment. It's not quite enough for me to recommend, but I'm not unhappy to have seen it.

The story is set in 1969, which gives a tinge of innocence to the proceedings, as Australia's native folk were just starting to assert their right to live their lives unspoilt. To have that attitude summed up in Broadway-style songs with lyrics like, "There's nothing that I'd rather be / Than to be an Aborigine / And watch you take my precious land away" feels less like musical rebellion than schmaltzy sell-out.

2.5 stars out of four

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