Stars: Deborah Mailman, Chris O'Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville, Lynette Narkle, Kylie Belling, Don Battee, Judith Lucy, Rhys Muldoon, Georgina Haig and Gregory J Fryer.
Writers: Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson.
Director: Wayne Blair.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screening - OPENING NIGHT, Thur 2 Aug, 7.30pm.
Charming import Chris O’Dowd stands above a frustratingly predictable song-and-dance show in Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires. Though it touches upon such hot button issues as racism, the Vietnam War, self-determination via social change and the stolen generation, there is an anaemic shallowness to the film’s exploration of them that suggests palatability and sentimentality were higher priorities than social commentary.
The pulled-punches in terms of thematic insight would have seemed less obvious had the more crowd-pleasing elements been handled with greater skill. Instead, the film hamstrings itself with some bland, episodic plotting, just-ok musical numbers and a cringing reliance upon anachronistic ‘Strine (the ‘strewth’ and ‘drongo’ laden scripts for both Red Dog and now The Sapphires indicate the broadly-played Aussie stereotype is alive and well).
Additionally, overstated 60s iconography abounds, including a grab-bag of clichéd period music (Soul Man; Hang On, I’m Coming; I Can’t Help Myself, and so on). Though Blair’s vision expands the action, the stage play origins are obvious in the films structure, which allows for a show-stopping tune at regular intervals whether the drama needs it or not.
Loosely adapted from the true story of four women of the Yorta Yorta clan who sang together in the late 60s and 70s (unlike in the film, only two, Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler, toured Vietnam), the film is at its best when establishing the conflicted bond that the group shares. The mother-hen is Gail (Deborah Mailman), an all-too-confrontational, downright unlikable young woman who, much to the actress’ credit, remains the emotional core of the film.
There is deep-seated animosity between Gail and her cousin Kay (a fine Shari Stebbens) dating back to Kay’s forced removal from her family as a child and subsequent shunning of her roots. Though this subplot offers some good melodrama (a bout of fisticuffs between the two, for example), the stolen generation issues lack a potent focus.
The other singers are Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), a firebrand with a lust for life and, more specifically, American soldiers; and, Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest but most level-headed of the group and certainly the most talented. Neither character is developed with much conviction over the course of the film, though Mauboy exudes all the front-girl charisma that her pop persona suggested she would.
An over-extended but funny opening sequence set during a country pub talent show introduces ne’er-do-well Irishman Dave Lovelace, who introduces the girl group to the wonders of soul music then hitches a ride on their star-making trajectory. As Lovelace, Chris O’Dowd is the ace up the sleeve that Blair often relies upon to enrich scenes of unfocussed drama.
The opening shots of an unusually lush outback landscape hint at an artistry that is only occasionally realised. Cinematographer Warwick Thornton seems entirely at ease in the idyllic bushland setting of the girl’s mission home (a very different slice of indigenous life to the one painted by Thornton in his acclaimed 2009 directorial debut, Samson and Delilah), but a tinniness infuses the Vietnam-set sequences. Tightly-framed versions of Saigon and US military bases clearly constructed in the wilds of the Oz bush aren’t very convincing, though a dramatically-staged attack that occurs during one of the girl’s final shows most definitely is.