Blueback Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Robert Connolly
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell, Eric Bana, Erik Thomson, Ariel Joy Donoghue, Isla Fogg, Eddie Baroo, Clarence Ryan, Pedrea Jackson.
This earnest, well-meaning but slightly manipulative family friendly film about the beautiful bond between a teenaged girl and a fish is based on the best-selling 1997 novella written by Miles Franklin award winning author Tim Winton (Cloudstreet, etc). Like much of Winton’s work it is steeped in concerns about the natural environment and man’s connections to nature and the land and the strong love he has for Australia’s coasts.
The film largely unfolds in a series of lengthy flashback sequences. When the film opens, Abby Jackson (played by Mia Wasikowska, from Alice In Wonderland, etc), a marine biologist investigating coral bleaching on the barrier reef, receives a phone call informing her that her mother Dora has suffered a severe stroke and has lost her ability to speak. Abby rushes home to Longboat Bay, her childhood home, a rustic fishing village situated on a small, picturesque bay on the remote coast of Western Australia. She moves her mother (Elizabeth Alexander) into the family home.
But this move brings back memories of her childhood and how the free spirited Dora inspired her love of nature and the sea. When she was eight Dora (played by Radha Mitchell) introduced Abby (played as a preteen by Ariel Joy Donoghue) to a giant Western blue groper fish which lived in an undersea cave off the coast. Gropers are fairly territorial and remain in the one place for most of their life and can live up to 75. Abby names the groper Blueback and a strong bond develops between the two, and she swears to protect the fish forever.
As a teen Abby (played by newcomer Isla Fogg) joins forces with her activist mother to fight against developers who want to turn the pristine coastline into a luxury resort development. The developers are also illegally and rapaciously fishing the sea. The film’s message that we are tightly linked to the sea echoes the sentiments of James Camaeron’s bloated blockbuster Avatar: The Way Of Water.
The novella has been adapted to the screen by veteran director Robert Connolly (The Dry, etc) and he has done of great job of ensuring that Winton’s concerns about the environment are front and centre, and that the tensions between Abby and the developers add plenty of drama. However, despite the ecological message about the destruction of the natural environment, the narrative lacks any real sense of urgency and some of the drama seems to have been toned down to make the material more family friendly. Connolly manages to move seamlessly between the three different time frames but maintains the focus on the film’s essential themes throughout.
But Blueback is also something of a coming-of-age story, and it is the bond between Abby and Blueback though that is the emotional heart of the film, rather like the way the relationship between the young protagonist and the pelican in another local classic Storm Boy shaped that film and gave it its emotional power. The titular blueback groper is actually brought to the screen through the clever use of puppetry from the team at Creative Technology Co, and the animatronic fish is well incorporated by puppeteer Jacob Kyriakidis.
Wasikowska brings intelligence and an earnest quality to her performance here, but this is largely an undemanding role. Mitchell brings gravitas to her performance as the headstrong Dora. Newcomer Fogg is impressive with her convincing and impassioned performance. Eric Bana brings a roguish quality to his small role as Macka, a local abalone fisherman who shares Abby’s love of the sea. Erik Thomson is well cast as Costello, the head of the development company who constantly clashes with Dora and Abby, but his villainous character remains frustratingly underdeveloped. Clarence Ryan (Cleverman, etc) brings a cheeky charm to his role as Abby’s childhood friend and fellow researcher Briggs, while Pedrea Jackson similarly brings charm to his role as the teenaged Briggs.
Blueback has been nicely shot by cinematographer Andrew Commis (High Ground, etc), who gives us some great scenery of the Western Australia coastline, and also gives us a strong sense of place. Kudos also to AACTA winning cinematographer Rick Rifici (Breath, another film adapted from a Winton work) whose underwater photography is spectacular. The superb visuals are accompanied by a stirring score from Nigel Westlake.