Blueback – Film Review

My love affair with the work of Australian author Tim Winton began way back in my first year in high school. My Year 7 English teacher introduced us to Lochie Leonard and the rest as they say is history.

Up until that point, I had always read young adult novels written by Americans and the English – but suddenly I was reading something that was very Aussie where a cop car was called a paddy wagon and the main character played Aussie Rules instead of soccer or gridiron.

From there, my love of Winton’s work grew and grew. Being a coastal/country kid meant that I had an even deeper understanding of the themes in Winton’s work and even today, whenever I am travelling overseas, I take a Tim Winton novel with me to read. Call my crazy, but it always feels like I am taking a small piece of Australia with me when I do so.

Of course, Winton’s writing has easily transferred into the film adaptions of his novels as well. Sit down and watch Breath or The Turning and there is always something uniquely Australian about those films, and that is certainly the case with director Robert Connolly’s adaption of Blueback. The mere fact that I even get to say that is a joyous occasion for me because Connolly is one of my favourite filmmakers. So, him directing Winton’s work feels like a marriage in heaven for me.

Blueback tells the story of Abby (Mia Waikowski) a marine biologist determined to do what she can to protect Australia’s waterways. But while she is investigating what is causing a reef to bleach, she receives a call to return back to Western Australia because her mother has had a stroke.

As Abby tries desperately to get her mother to remember her past and to speak again, the audience is taken on a journey with where young Abby (Ariel Donoghue) and teenage Abby (newcomer Ilsa Fogg) are introduced to the beauty of Australia’s oceans by her mother Dora (Radha Mitchell).

After the death of her pearl-diving husband Dora has started a campaign to save The Bay that she calls home. Whether this means checking in on the local abalone fisherman (Eric Bana) to make sure he isn’t over-fishing or taking on a local developer (Erik Thomson) who wants to destroy the bay, there is no fight too big for her.

Dora’s love for the ocean is soon handed down to Abby, especially after she discovers a Blue Groper she decides to call ‘Blueback’. But there is still tension between mother and daughter, especially around what it means to be an activist and Abby wanting to leave The Bay to further her studies.

I found Blueback to be one of those uniquely Australian stories mentioned earlier, that Winton is famous for. Only a person who has spent time along Australia’s coastline could come up with a film like Blueback which genuinely brings the love of coastal creatures and the coastal lifestyle to the big screen.

Perhaps the biggest sign that both Winton and Connolly were serious about making this a natural film is that they didn’t take the Hollywood path to make Blueback a whale or a dolphin. Let’s be honest, a Blue Groper fish is not the most visually beautiful creature, yet somehow, together these two men make the relationship between a teenager girl and Blueback the central piece to a film that has a much deeper meaning.

Hidden between the environmental storyline and the stunningly beautiful way the cinematographers Andrew Commis and Rick Rifici capture the Australian coastline is a coming-of-age story about finding your own identity. Abby’s story here is one that I found to be deeply meaningful and at times, painful. Her love affair with the ocean doesn’t just come about because her mother, it becomes her from escape the pain of what happened to her father, as well as a way that she can bond with the boy that she likes – Briggs (Clarence Ryan).

The tale told here in Blueback is uniquely Australian, but if you replace the ocean with any other kind of passion such as art, sport etc., Abby’s story becomes a universal one. The key element is that Dora doesn’t think that Abby loves the ocean the same way she does because she is willing to leave it. What she doesn’t understand is that Abby needs to leave it for awhile in a bid to eventually save it. We have all been in those situations where a parent doesn’t understand our motivations or goals so this, at the end of the day, is a film that most people should be able to identify with.

Radha Mitchell is brilliant as Dora. Her natural ability to become a character works well here and some of her more touching scenes with Mia Wasikowska are truly memorable.

Credit must also be paid to Eric Bana who takes on a much smaller role in this film. Even so, he is a standout as one of the film’s more memorable characters. While young star Ilsa Fogg must come to the attention of voters for film awards, come the Australian film award season. She has a huge career ahead of her.

As usual, I have found myself deeply impressed by a Robert Connolly film. His body of work must certainly mean that he is one of Australia’s most important filmmakers and Blueback goes to show that he can make what is pretty much a family film a must see. Maybe I am biased because of my love for Winton and Connolly’s work in general, but I completely fell in love with this film.

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