In this article, I will examine the work of contemporary Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly (b. 1967), a director who could be considered amongst the most successful contemporary filmmakers working in Australia today. While many of his colleagues have struggled to make their second (or even first) feature film, Connolly, in his various roles, has made a feature roughly every other year since graduating from the Australian Film Television and Radio School in the late 1990s. To date, he has written and directed four feature films, produced nearly a dozen others (4), worked on such quality television series as The Slap (2011), written and directed a made-for-television-movie, and produced the epic film adaptation of Tim Winton’s short story collection The Turning (2013). His track record in the contemporary industry makes him a significant case study, and as a means of introducing this analysis, I want to briefly consider Graeme Turner’s 1994 article “Whatever Happened to National Identity? Film and Nation in the 1990s” to help situate Connolly’s work in the context of Australian cinema and the narrative trends of recent decades (5).
Written as a follow up to his book National Fictions (6), in which he traced the historical and ideological roots of the portrayal of national identity in Australian “renaissance” films, Turner’s “Whatever Happened to National Identity?” serves as a useful reference point for the Australian films made over the last two decades. In the article, Turner describes a shift away from the cultural nationalism and anachronistic notion of national identity that had characterised the films of 1970s and early 1980s toward what he sees as a multiplying of national “identities”. He cites a range of films which are either uninterested in the matter of national identity or offer a very different set of archetypes. Further, he identifies a concomitant disregard for the art cinema conventions of the Australian cinema of earlier eras in favour of more commercial forms. Writing about a selection of films of the 1990s, Turner observes:
As with so many Australian films of the last few years, the current crop are notable for their lack of self-consciousness about their national origins, their refusal of the official responsibilities of a culturally significant art form, their range of styles and subjects, their disrespect for the generic markers of “art film”, and their equally disrespectful indigenisation of mainstream commercial genres. (7)
The shifts described by Turner were partly a result of changing ideas around Australian cultural identity but were also a response to the economic and policy shifts toward globalism. His characterisation of the post-renaissance, post-10BA Australian cinema as a hybridisation of national and international forms is relevant to a study of Connolly’s work in a number of ways. First, Connolly’s films share with those described by Turner the refusal of responsibility to create a culturally significant art cinema. Connolly’s films borrow more from Hollywood than they do from Europe, and seem uninterested in the narrative styles of art cinema that had been adapted for the Australian films of the “renaissance” era. Second, Connolly’s regular use of Hollywood genre conventions, particularly those of the thriller, is a clear indication that he seeks an audience beyond the film festivals and art houses of the world. This is the case even if his use of these conventions is irreverent or “disrespectful”. In fact, Connolly’s adaptation of genre conventions can be seen as exemplary of the type of “indigenisation” of genre described by Turner, most notably at the level of characterisation, as Connolly’s protagonists are often distinctively Australian types. In order to demonstrate these qualities, I will consider Connolly’s short films Rust Bucket (1997) and Mr. Ikegami’s Flight (1998), as well as his feature films The Bank (2001), Three Dollars (2005), Balibo (2009), and finally, his made-for-TV-movie Underground: The Julian Assange Story (2012).
Short Films: Rust Bucket and Mr. Ikegami’s Flight
Connolly’s two short films, while primarily crafted as student works made as industry calling cards and film festival fodder (Rust Bucket won second prize at Tropfest in 1997), can also be seen to introduce themes and character types that have reappeared in a number of his subsequent films. Mr. Ikegami’s Flight tells the story of Ikegami (Kazuhiro Muroyama), a Japanese businessman on assignment in Sydney while his pregnant wife gives birth to their first child back home. The film is a simple, reflective character piece focused on Ikegami’s quiet, dignified and deep shame over his absence at the birth of his child and his resulting resentment towards his employer for demanding that he travel abroad at such a time in his life. Thematically, it introduces a character-type that will reoccur in most if not all of Connolly’s subsequent films: the battler. In this instance, the battler is a middle-aged man facing insurmountable obstacles to which he ultimately acquiesces. His context is the metaphorical prison of the late capitalist multinational corporation – represented metonymically in the film by the stark interiors and reflective surfaces of the city, a visual motif that will re-appear in The Bank and Three Dollars (also films in which we find middle-aged battlers at the mercy of occupational or economic forces beyond their control).
In his next short, Rust Bucket, Connolly tells the story of a hapless Sydney family man who discovers he has paid $9000 dollars for a car riddled with corrosion. Unable to register the car, he decides to pay to have it “stolen” in order to take advantage of a theft clause in his insurance policy. In the conversation between the protagonist and his wife, the viewer comes to understand the financial pressure he is under and is perhaps more sympathetic when he resorts to what seems like a minor crime against a large, wealthy and faceless corporation. The result of his decision, however, is devastating as the story’s horrible twist comes when viewers realise that the protagonist’s toddler is asleep inside the car as it is dumped into Sydney Harbour by the thieves. Rust Bucket further develops character types and themes explored in Mr. Ikegami’s Flight, but here the context is entirely Australian, and the battler takes the form of a downtrodden, white-collar Anglo-Saxon family man struggling to make ends meet in an economically-rationalised contemporary Sydney. Interestingly, Mr. Ikegami’s Flight and Rust Bucket together function somewhat like character sketches for the protagonists Connolly employs in his feature films.
The Bank marked Connolly’s debut as a feature film director. The screenplay was written by Connolly based on an idea by futures traders Brian Price and Mike Betar. It is a crime thriller set in Australia and follows protagonist Jim Doyle, a mathematical genius/con-man played by David Wenham. Doyle is hired by the American CEO of Centabank, Simon O’Reilly (Anthony LaPaglia) after a pitch in which Doyle explains that the software he is developing, based on Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry, will “allow [him] to predict almost anything”, including stock market crashes. After months of working with the bank’s supercomputers to fine tune his software and gain the trust and confidence of his employers, Doyle persuades O’Reilly that a crash is immanent. O’Reilly concocts a scheme to exploit the crash and convinces his board to put the full resources of the bank at his disposal. It is at this point, just before the film’s climax, that viewers learn Doyle is an imposter whose father committed suicide after being ruined by a bank foreclosure years earlier. Doyle’s childhood wound proves to be the motivating force behind the plot, which is to bankrupt Centabank, and when the stock market crash Doyle predicts fails to materialise, the bank is indeed ruined and its board imprisoned for corruption. Doyle and O’Reilly both flee the country; O’Reilly goes back to Wall Street and Doyle to the tropics.
Stylistically, The Bank can be seen as a quintessential example of the kind of hybrid described by Turner. Generically, The Bank looks like a thriller, sounds like a thriller, and its plot unfolds as one would expect from an international thriller. It employs suspense, particularly in the scenes around the market crash predicted by Doyle, where a range of high stakes questions loom. It mostly restricts narration to limit the viewer’s access to knowledge of Doyle’s backstory, motives and plans, as well as employing cross-cutting to narrative strands where threats to the protagonist are revealed to the audience but not to the protagonist himself. In all of these ways, then, the film employs the conventions of the transnational thriller.
At the same time, reviewers and critics of The Bank regularly comment on the “Australianness” of the film. This is because it has a number of characteristics that are clearly inflected by its origins, and these are evident in both its characterisation and visual style. Graham Mitchell, for instance, writes, “it is tempting to compare The Bank to The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997). Both deal with the Aussie Battler struggling against big business.” (8) Mitchell argues for Doyle as a clear-cut example of a battler in his struggle against the global bank, and Doyle is not even the only battler followed in the film. There is a subplot concerning the Davis family, doubly victimised by Centabank when the local sheriff’s delivery of the foreclosure notice leads to the disappearance and accidental death of their son, and their story is a tragedy with parallels to Doyle’s own. Doyle, battler though he is, can also be read as a contemporary rendition of the trope of the bushranger, and something of a cross between Robin Hood and Ned Kelly. And in a further comparison to mythic Australian character types, one might also argue that there is a distinctive sense of a warden/inmate relationship between O’Reilly and Doyle. For example, O’Reilly, in a typically violent metaphor used in one of their exchanges, tells Doyle that he aims “to keep his foot on his neck”; and Doyle’s research lab is a highly secure underground facility that is clearly prisonlike. In these ways, Doyle shares characteristics with more traditional Australian protagonists/types.
Writing about the visual design of The Bank, Mitchell contrasts the rural scenes with those shot in the city: “these [rural] scenes have a peculiarly Australian feel, especially when compared to the cold, hard-edged skyscraper office interiors, more typical of an American viewpoint” (9). While we might question the equation of the minimalistic visual style with an American “viewpoint”, it is clearly the case that that the iconography of the film’s urban setting is that of the transnational thriller, whereas its flashbacks to the rural setting of Doyle’s childhood seem more evocative of much of the Australian cinema of the 1970s revival. This connection is made explicit by Jonathan Dawson, who writes that the opening shot of The Bank “conform(s) exactly to Graeme Turner’s observations on the recurrent use of long dusty landscape establishing shots” in the films of the renaissance (10). While these Australian themes and stylistic characteristics lead critics to compare the film with those of the Australia’s rich cinematic past, there is at least one key difference between Connolly’s film and the typical narratives of the Australian “renaissance” cinema: The Bank offers its protagonists redemption and its villains retribution. Doyle, while he may resemble the bushranger, triumphs over the seemingly insurmountable odds rather than submitting to them. Further, his refusal to submit allows him to make up the financial losses suffered by the Davis family (a rather minor consolation for them in light of the tragic loss of their son), and it also offers the possibility of a reunion with his love interest in the film. The Bank, in its employment of a central protagonist with agency and a redemptive narrative arc, seems more like the Australian “Glitter Cycle” films of the 1990s (Muriel’s Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Strictly Ballroom) than those of the ’70s “renaissance”, even if The Bank seems slightly less “disrespectful” in its indigenisation of mainstream generic (thriller) markers than the Glitter Cycle films were with their respective genres (11). The same cannot be said of Connolly’s next feature, Three Dollars, which employs enough of the conventions of the mainstream thriller to warrant association – including an unmistakable nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) – but seems to have no interest in following through with them (12).
Three Dollars is based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Eliot Perlman and was adapted for the screen by Connolly. The film follows Eddie Harnovey (David Wenham), a middle-aged family man and all-around nice guy who works as a chemical engineer in the Department of Environment. It has two key plots, both of which have Eddie at the centre. The first chronicles Eddie’s investigation of a proposed housing development site contaminated with low levels of an unidentifiable toxin. Eddie is under pressure from his supervisor to approve the development and when he (inexplicably) reports the matter to the press, his positioned is terminated. The second plot involves Eddie’s deteriorating relationship with wife Tanya (Frances O’Connor), who also loses her job in the course of the film due to the economic rationalising of the university sector. This strand features a number of sepia-toned flashbacks that tell the backstory of Eddie and Tanya’s relationship from their university days to the present, as well as a subplot tracing Eddie’s relationship with a childhood friend (and potential lover) Amanda (Sarah Wynter), who he sees, by chance, every nine-and-a-half years.
Three Dollars is set in Australia, based on an Australian novel, and made by Australians for a seemingly domestic audience. It is squarely focused at the social issues of the era in which it is set. Its protagonist is another iteration of the battler, with close ties not only to the central characters of The Bank and Connolly’s short films, but also to typical characters from the tradition of Australian social-realist storytelling. Its style, while not wholly social-realist, is indebted to the form. Rose Capp traces the film’s connections to a number of similar contemporary Australian films:
Perlman’s cautionary tale of disenfranchised masculinity suggests a strong connection with beleaguered male characters in other Australian films such as The Illustrated Family Doctor (Kriv Stenders, 2005), Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004), Swimming Upstream (Russell Mulcahy, 2003) and the eponymous character of Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 2004). (13)
These social issue-oriented films are considered by Capp through the lens of the feminist exploration of the “crisis of masculinity” instigated by critics such as Pam Cook in the early 1980s (14). Capp argues that Three Dollars, while clearly sharing crucial thematic concerns with these films, is perhaps more relevant for its socio-political critique of contemporary Australia. Three Dollars, according to Capp, should be situated alongside the films of Rolf de Heer and Shirley Barrett, writer/directors whose work belongs “to a tradition of cinematic storytelling committed, in Perlman’s words, to talking ‘about contemporary Australia with an unstinting socio-political honesty’” (15). Dawson furthers this idea: “Three Dollars, novel and film, is at all times a jeremiad against all the facile idiocies of what New Labour calls the Third Way” (16). It is, perhaps, Connolly’s attempt to preserve as much of the novel’s social critique as possible that led him to abandon the crime thriller dimensions introduced in the early part of the film for the resulting domestic drama/social problem film. The protagonist of Three Dollars is a battler for whom “the difficulty of survival becomes the justification for failing to do more than that” (17). In this way, its parallels are more to the inward-looking films of the “AFC era” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and may, in this sense, be seen as something of an anomaly in Connolly’s body of work.
Balibo is based on the true story of a group of international journalists, including four Australians, killed in the 1975 Indonesian invasion of Portuguese Timor. The screenplay was adapted by Connolly and David Williamson from a number of sources, including Jill Jolliffe’s Cover Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, the “Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation”, and the findings of the “2007 Glebe Coronial Inquest” (18). The film follows journalist Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) to Portuguese Timor on the eve of the 1975 Indonesian invasion. East goes to Timor to investigate the disappearance of a group of reporters who have been covering the invasion for Australian television, and his quest serves as the backbone of the film’s investigative plot. The reporters, who subsequently became known as “The Balibo Five”, had naively traveled to the frontline of the invasion several weeks earlier and had not been seen since. East travels to Balibo, the village where they were last seen and uncovers the grisly truth of their murder at the hands of the invading Indonesian army. He then returns to Dili, where he manages to file his story before being executed along with tens of thousands of Timorese.
The film tells its story using a flashback structure with three distinct temporalities. The narration can be described as multi-perspectival and the primary strand, which motivates the action and frames the story, introduces Juliana da Costa, an East Timorese woman who is recounting her story for the 1999 Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The two other narrative strands, though they include information far beyond what da Costa could know, are embedded within her story. Viewers learn that da Costa’s father owned the hotel where East and the other journalists stayed, and that she was an eyewitness to the murder of East by the invading Indonesian army. Her perspective provides a first person account of the events that unfolded in Dili and serve as a quasi-historical grounding for the story – “quasi” because da Costa is a fictional character. The second strand follows East as he journeys with Timorese Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta to Balibo in order to find out what happened to the journalists. The narration of this strand is restricted to East’s perspective, so the viewer’s understanding of what happened to the journalists is closely tied to what East knows. The third strand represents the journey of the five journalists from Dili to the frontline, where they are killed. To distinguish it temporally from East’s journey, as well as to recreate the aesthetic of 1970s news footage, it is shot on grainy 16mm film (or simulates this look).
Generically, Balibo is more like The Bank than Three Dollars, unashamedly employing conventions of the thriller, while at the same time “disrespectfully” indigenising them. Conscience, and the goading of Ramos-Horta, forces the ocnophilic East out from his comfortable and meaningless existence into a high stakes adventure full of danger and meaning (19). East successfully uncovers the truth, at the same time discovering (re-discovering) his own philobatic abilities (20). In the end, however, his victory is partial, and his death at the hands of the Indonesian army (as he protests with the resoundingly hollow: “I’m an Australian”) recalls Breaker Morant and Gallipoli rather than North by Northwest. (21)
Underground: The Julian Assange Story
Connolly’s made-for-TV feature Underground: The Julian Assange Story is a biopic/heist film about the late 1980s and early 1990s hacking exploits of the teenaged Julian Assange, aka “Mendax 17” (Alex Williams). It is based on the 1997 book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier by Suelette Dreyfus and was adapted by Connolly for the screen. The film, though made for Network Ten in Australia, also premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, screened at the London Film Festival, and has had an “event style” theatrical run in Australia’s Palace Cinemas. As was the case with Balibo, and most films based on true stories, critics have taken issue with the historical accuracy of the story. For example, retired policeman Ken Day, a veteran of the Australian Federal Police’s computer crime division, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, is quoted as saying that “the facts surrounding this [Milnet] case have been so skewed [in the film] as to portray a false impression of the events” (22). Connolly, while he admits the film is “a work of fiction inspired by fact”, maintains the factual basis for the Milnet hacking story (23).
Set in Melbourne, the story follows Assange and two of his friends who form an early computer activist group called the International Subversives as they hack the US military database Milnet in order to confirm their belief that George H. W. Bush’s administration is guilty of intentionally targeting civilians in the first Gulf War. The film also includes a romantic plotline in which Assange fathers a child with girlfriend Electra (Laura Wheelwright), as well as a subplot involving Assange’s stepfather’s attempts to kidnap Julian’s brother into the cult known as The Family. Anthony LaPaglia plays Detective Ken Roberts, head of the Australian Federal Police computer crime division, and Rachel Griffiths features as Julian’s radical leftist mother, Christine Assange. Like The Bank and Balibo, Underground employs conventions common to the Hollywood thriller, and like The Bank, it features an exceptionally clever anti-authoritarian protagonist seeking to bring about justice through decidedly unconventional and even illegal means. Here, we might see the bushranger archetype refigured once again, with Assange’s current imprisonment in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London as US Public Enemy Number One a vital intertext. The contemporary political drama surrounding Assange gives the film a much wider appeal and relevance than the average tele-feature, while at the same time, Assange’s archetypical resonance as a familiar type of Australian national hero is telling.
This article has sought to bring into focus a uniquely Australian style of narrative through a consideration of the films of Robert Connolly. It has situated Connolly’s work in relation to previous discussions and conceptualisations of Australian cinema. More specifically, it has considered the ways in which Connolly’s films combine characteristics of the Hollywood thriller with archetypal Australian character types and narrative arcs to create a body of films that continue a particular style of filmmaking identified by Turner in the 1990s. In doing so, Connolly’s films can be seen as providing an example of the ways in which Australian filmmakers of recent decades have refused the quasi-official responsibility of producing “a culturally significant art form” and instead have “disrespectfully” indigenised mainstream commercial genres in a move toward more commercial forms (24). It might also be argued that Connolly has found a useful narrative mode within a context that is notoriously difficult for filmmakers to succeed in, even if this success is not measured in terms of significant box office returns.
This article has been peer reviewed.
- Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia, Volume 1: Anatomy of a Film Industry, Currency Press, Sydney, 1987. Connolly is also the co-founder of the Sydney-based production company Arenafilm, head of Footprint Films – Arena’s feature film theatrical distribution company – and has recently established Arenamedia, based in Melbourne.
- Ben Goldsmith, “Outward-looking Australian cinema”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 4, no. 3, 2010, p. 201.
- See Deborah Thomas, “Tarantino’s Two Thumbs Up: Ozploitation and the Reframing of Aussie Genre Film”, Metro no. 161, 2009, pp. 90-95.
- Including, but not limited to, The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998), The Monkey’s Mask (Samantha Lang, 2000), Romulus, My Father (Richard Roxburgh, 2007), and The Turning (2013).
- Graeme Turner, “Whatever Happened to National Identity? Film and Nation in the 1990s”, Metro no. 100, 1994, pp. 32-35.
- Graeme Turner, National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narrative, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1986.
- Turner, “Whatever Happened to National Identity?”, p. 33.
- Graham Mitchell, “Which Bank? The Bank”, Metro no. 129/130, 2001, pp. 28-38.
- Mitchell, p. 36.
- Jonathan Dawson, “The Boys from the Bank – The Bank”, Senses of Cinema no. 16, September 2001: http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/16/bank/.
- See Emily Rustin, “Romance and Sensation in the ‘Glitter Cycle’”, Australian Cinema in the 1990s, ed. Ian Craven, Frank Cass Publishers, New York, 2001, pp. 131-148.
- In the early part of Three Dollars, Eddie is chased by a crop-dusting helicopter through recently harvested farmland in an unmistakable homage to Hitchcock’s quintessential thriller, leading spectators such as myself to expect the film to explore a criminal conspiracy using thriller conventions. This facet of the film is underdeveloped, however, and the resulting generic ambiguity may well have contributed to the box office and critical failure of the film, which reviewer Phillip Cenere argues is “embarrassingly bad”. See “Almost Bankrupt: Three Dollars”, Metro no. 144, 2005, p. 16.
- Rose Capp, “For a Few Dollars More: Masculinity and Moral Rectitude in Robert Connolly’s Three Dollars”, Metro no. 144, Autumn 2005, p. 12.
- See, for example, Pam Cook, “Masculinity in Crisis?”, Screen vol. 23, no. 3-4, September-October 1982, pp. 39-46.
- Capp, p. 13.
- Jonathan Dawson, “Empty Pockets: Robert Connolly Interviewed on Three Dollars”, Senses of Cinema no. 36, July-September 2005: http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/36/three_dollars/.
- Turner, National Fictions.
- Marguerite O’Hara, “Bringing History to Life: Balibo”, Screen Education no. 55, 2009, p. 17.
- See Charles Derry, The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Hitchcock, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 1988. Derry draws on psychoanalyst Michel Balint’s work on ocnophilia and philobatism for his characterisation of the thriller protagonist.
- See Adrian Danks, “Free At Last: Robert Connolly’s Balibo”, Senses of Cinema no. 51, July 2009: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/51/balibo/. Danks writes that East’s remark as he faces his murderers is “in many respects, one of the film’s few truly false notes”.
- Karl Quinn, “Police Officer Slams TV Portrayal of Assange”, Sydney Morning Herald 12 October 2012: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/police-officer-slams-tv-portrayal-of-assange-20121009-27bho.html.
- Turner, “Whatever Happened to National Identity?”, p. 33.
Robert Connolly Screenography (as director unless indicated):
2014 Paper Planes (Feature) in production (Director, Writer)
2013 The Boy Castaways (Executive Producer)
2013 The Turning (“Feature”) 1 Episode: “Acquifer” (Director) (Producer)
2013 These Final Hours (Executive Producer)
2012 Underground: The Julian Assange Story (Telemovie) (Director, Writer)
2011 The Slap (TV Series) 2 Episodes: “Aisha”, “Rosie” (Director)
2010 Rush (TV Series) Episode 18, Season 3 (Director)
2009 Dark Frontier (Executive Producer)
2009 Balibo (Feature) (Director, Writer)
2007 Romulus, My Father (Producer)
2005 Three Dollars (Feature) (Director, Writer)
2001 The Bank (Feature) (Director, Writer)
2000 The Monkey’s Mask (Producer)
1998 The Boys (Producer)
1998 Mr. Ikegami’s Flight (Short) (Director)
1997 Rust Bucket (Short) (Director, Writer)
1995 All Men Are Liars (Associate Producer)
1995 Roses are Red (Short) (Producer)