Dear Film Alert
The following essay originally appeared on page 180 in the book 100 Greatest Films of Australian Cinema, Edited by Scott Hocking and published by Scribal in 2006.
|Mandy Walker, DoP and director Ray Argall filming|
No local film better captured the mixed emotions of a lazy suburban summer day like Ray Argall’s Return Home. In a book about great Australian films, does that seem too modest a project to warrant an exultation? But consider; how many of the movies written about here are built on the need to look outside of one’s backyard? How many owe their existence to a heartfelt, restless spite that looks at all those red-roofed fibro and brick houses, and sees only a prison populated by bourgeois monsters? It’s fair to say that in our movies, ‘suburbia’ is often nothing but a dark seam of outrage and discontent; a ‘perfect’ setting for grotesque comedy or psycho drama.
Ray Argall’s suburbia in Return Home is not a site for fear or caricature. It’s generous but not romantic; its characters too full of genuine frustration to be passed off as cute movie types. Still, there is more hope than anger in this straightforward story about brotherly love, teen romance and the rewards and pleasure that comes from working with your hands in a job that warrants a lifetime of commitment. Argall aims to convince us that this is a place where good things happen, and that if happiness has not yet arrived, then, with luck, it might be far off.
Return Home opens with a series of vignettes that captures Adelaide’s Henley Beach as a sun-bleached comfort zone wide avenues lined with modest homes and palms, where there’s cricket and muscle cars and mullets. Argall sets this against the lilting majesty of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and the effect is immediate and persuasive; this story of so-called ‘little people’ in a ‘nothing place’ deserves beauty and poetry and a clear-eyed respect.
When it was first released in late 1990 some critics placed Return Home in the cinematic tradition of minimalist grit-Brit naturalism, a la Ken Loach, sans the simmering dread and foul language. But, against the gentle rhythms and careful detail of Argall’s vision – and the fact that it is distinctly, laconically Australian, the comparison to the predominantly gloomy, class-obsessed work of Loach is hopelessly inadequate in capturing the wry humour and unhurried candour of Return Home. If anything, the film’s premise would seem, if it weren’t for Argall’s doggedly anti-dramatic tone, the stuff of soap opera.
A Melbourne insurance man, Noel (Dennis Coard), returns home to visit his brother Steve (Frankie J Holden), a mechanic who took over the family business, an old-fashioned petrol station/garage in suburban Adelaide. Noel explores the old neighbourhood, helps out in the garage, befriends Steve’s lovesick apprentice Gary (Ben Mendelsohn), and discovers that the business is being squeezed by ‘progress’. Early on, his sister-in-law Judy (Micki Camilleri) confides in Noel that “we may not make it.” Steve is reluctant to change; he sees the coming ‘Americanisation’ of services as a compromise; “I don’t want to make a killing - I just want to stay in business.” Too ashamed to ask his brother for help, Steve plods on into what seems like commercial oblivion, as Noel contemplates a possible new future.
Without phony climaxes Argall creates a tremendous emotional power in Noel’s unspoken yearnings. Divorced, prematurely aged, and childless, Noel’s sense of loss is conveyed in tiny intimate moments that are shared exclusively with the movie audience; as when he returns to a favoured teenage romantic spot to trace the carved initials that declared a love affair long soured.
Shot on 16mm on a tiny budget, Return Home earnt its sense of lived experience honestly as Argall spent time in Adelaide as a teenager; the movie’s love of cars and working-class setting come directly from his memories. Perhaps what is truly great about the film is not the careful verisimilitude, or the way cinematographer Mandy Walker captures the inky sweat of a hot night or the white glare of a summer day; but the performances. The cast seems to breathe in life here; they’re not acting, they are being.
Return Home was a success, though a modest one, and a huge critical hit, though today it’s hardly remembered, perhaps because the mystique of such a tender film is so desperately difficult to articulate. Maybe it’s best to say that to experience it is like spending time with an old friend one hasn’t seen in a while. When it’s over, all that’s left is that strange mixture of elation and sadness that comes with necessary goodbyes. It’s a small masterpiece.
Peter Galvin is a writer and filmmaker. His first book, ‘A Long Way from Anywhere, The Story of Wake in Fright and the Australian Feature Film Revival 1968-1972’, is nearing completion.
Return Home screens twice at Cinema Reborn. Saturday 30 April at 5.15 pm and Monday 2 May at 3.00pm. At the session on Saturday 30 April Ray Argall will be present to introduce the movie. Also screening at both sessions is Lucinda Clutterbuck's 10 minute award-winning animated film Tiga. The two films were originally released on the same program on first release back in 1990. Lucinda Clutterbuck will also attend the 30 April session to introduce her film. Bookings on the Randwick Ritz website JUST CLICK HERE
Ray Argall writes: The Return Home restoration has been a labour of love, it was one of the first films I started to restore over ten years ago. Since then there has been so much change and evolution in the digital environment that the restoration work has been reinvented several times. We scanned the camera original negative, then matched the A&B rolls which required a lot of stabilisation on the cement splices, then did a shot by shot grade and a painful amount of dust busting. For the soundtrack we digitised the original 3 track 35mm magnetic mix into separate DME (Dialogue Music Effects) tracks. We then replaced all the music with digital stereo versions of the original music stems and created a 5.1 digital sound master. Greg P Fitzgerald did the remix from mono and stereo stems to the new digital 5.1 master. Our original restoration master was in 2K and presented at MIFF 2019. Last year I went back to the original scans and restored the picture to a 4K master, which is having its first public screening at Cinema Reborn.