Adaptation captures poetic grace of Tim Winton's Dirt Music

Dirt Music (M, 105 minutes)

4 stars

The readers of Tim Winton's 2002 Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Dirt Music will be familiar with the plot of Gregor Jordan's adaptation. In remote White Point on the coast of Western Australia, Georgie (Kelly Macdonald) exists in a sometimes passionate but currently on-the-wane relationship with widowed fisherman Jim (David Wenham).

Garrett Hedlund in Gregor Jordan's adaptation of Tim Winton's acclaimed novel, Dirt Music. Picture: Supplied

Garrett Hedlund in Gregor Jordan's adaptation of Tim Winton's acclaimed novel, Dirt Music. Picture: Supplied

In a claustrophobically tight-knit community, not much escapes attention, and so Georgie hits the road for Perth and a bit of freedom but is left stranded when her car breaks down.

To the rescue comes Lu (Garrett Hedlund) whose path she has already crossed when she caught him robbing Jim's crayfish pots. Lu is something of a wreck from a hinted-at earlier tragedy. Once a performer in a local folk band, he now says he won't even listen to music.

The pair begin a tryst that may be the cause of a range of catastrophic events for Lu - or it could be locals resent having their livelihood stolen by Lu's poaching. Whatever the cause, Lu leaves for places unknown in the remote north of the state, and Georgie, understanding her connection with the sad broken man runs deeper than expected, takes off in pursuit of him.

Once upon a time in the Australian film industry, one of the essential ways a film might qualify for funding, particularly government funding, was to headline an international actor in the cast, the rationale being that the film sales companies were more likely to guarantee a sale for the film in the United States with a Yankee in the film, or in the UK with a Brit in the lead.

The same practice exists these days, though for different reasons.

Here we have the Australian-est of Australian films, an adaptation of Australia's arguably most favourite author, piercingly beautiful Western Australian locations, the director of Two Hands behind the camera, but a Scottish actress and an American actor approximating an Australian accent in the lead roles.

What is different in the years since the old Film Finance Corporation days is that Australian filmmakers and storytellers have been so successful at imbedding our presence in global culture that international companies want to tell Australian stories. Winton's novels, and this one in particular, have sold very well internationally.

There is American money and British money in this Aussie production, with Samuel Goldwyn Films and Film 4 on the title credits, and while that means Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund in the leads, these are good things.

Kelly Macdonald (Georgie) and David Wenham (Jim) in a scene from the film.

Kelly Macdonald (Georgie) and David Wenham (Jim) in a scene from the film.

Imagining COVID hadn't decimated the international cinema game, it would mean all of those Aussie performers in smaller roles would be gaining recognition and notoriety amongst international audiences, and the breadth of locations Australia has to offer for film production would be turning more heads than it already has.

The postcard locations are one of the reasons to brave a return to the cinema to see the glorious blues of the WA coastline up on the big screen. Director Gregor Jordan has assembled a stellar crew to support his ambitious work, notably cinematographer Sam Chiplin whose distinctive work would be remembered well by those who saw the mini series Safe Harbour.

I refer to Jordan's work being ambitious because filmmakers before him have found Dirt Music to be unfilmable, with Phil Noyce abandoning his plans to shoot the book a decade earlier because he didn't think he could appropriately capture the book's poetic grace.

The readers and fans of Winton's work will all have a thing or two to say about whether they particularly think Jordan has captured said poetry. There are certainly elements of the story he toned down, and others neglected altogether, but I think as a film this is a well-made character piece that does a serviceable job for its three leads and an amazing job for WA tourism (when we're all allowed back there).

As Jim, David Wenham portrays a stereotypically unexpressive Aussie male. As he matures physically, his face carries such depth of character and there is much to read in his work.

Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund both give decent Aussie accents, even if it drops every now and then. Her Georgie isn't quite the full-on alcoholic of the book, but the film's romance wouldn't be quite so marketable if she was.

Macdonald has been possibly my favourite actress since her star-making turn in Trainspotting 25 years ago.

Garrett Hedlund looks like a fourth Hemsworth, sun-bleached hair and dreamy eyes. He has the harder role, skirting between misery and a deeper layer of misery.

In a supporting role is Australian singer-songwriter Julia Stone, her iconic voice so recognisable as Lu's bandmate and sister-in-law, and who also contributes to the film's haunting soundtrack.

This story Adaptation captures poetic grace first appeared on The Canberra Times.