Wake in Fright

Sean Keenan rises to the challenge but creative changes in this remake may challenge film buffs.

It’s a brave creative team to tackle an Australian classic and TV has two of them coming up: Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wake in Fright.

Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake in Fright frequently and justifiably makes critics’ lists of top Australian films. It is a harrowing descent into madness, with a captivating performance by British actor Gary Bond as schoolteacher John Grant.

Writer Stephen M. Irwin (Secrets and Lies, Harrow, Tidelands, Australia Day) and Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, The Principal, Australia Day) turn to Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel to relocate the story into 2017 as a 2 part miniseries. That has required some key creative differences that will challenge film buffs…

Sean Keenan, enjoying a bumper year of roles, is outback teacher John Grant who attempts to head home to Sydney when he is inadvertently detoured into Bundanyabba (aka “the Yabba”) and a parade of characters who will mess with his head.

They include David Wenham as Sergeant Jock Crawford, Gary Sweet as Tim Hynes, Alex Dimitriades as eccentric (to put it nicely) Doc Tydon plus roles from Caren Pistorious and Robyn Malcolm.

“Best little town on earth. Once you’ve been to the Yabba you never want to leave,” Grant is ominously told.

But the Yabba involves endless pints of beer, Two-Up, losing money and becoming obliged to monstrous locals and self-centred miscreants. Unable to find the means to leave, Grant sinks deeper and deeper into a blur of alcohol, drugs, and violent threats, all the while losing a grip on reality.

Yet some of the changes bothered me, including that Keenan’s Grant is an Australian, not British, teacher. This denies us both the fish-out-of-water scenario and, more significantly, the hero’s view of these strange Australian outback people. As an Aussie Grant wouldn’t be a complete stranger to Two-Up (as depicted here), and the concept of mateship and beer as the great leveller, would hardly be foreign. I was less convinced of his submissiveness than the polite Brit.

Directorially there is a heavy-handed approach to the locals as menacing, manipulative and two-sided. The original film saw the locals bend over backwards to befriend Grant, with such benevolence as to disguising their true nature. They laughed, they drank, they slapped you on the back and heaven help you if you didn’t return in kind. This was its true terror and a chilling statement on who we are. Here I get the feeling we are one truckstop away from a genre where a traveller has taken a wrong turn on the highway.

There are also flashbacks to Grant’s Sydney girlfriend, gleaming cars that have seemingly never hit red dirt, leering shots of a naked Keenan, and a flat cliffhanger to end Part I (disclaimer: I’ve only seen Part I, so I can’t comment on the roo cull becoming a pig massacre). One scene recreated with Caren Pistorious was ludicrously staged in its new environment. Wenham’s Sgt. Crawford is not a patch on the colloquial, terrifying Chips Rafferty.

But it’s not all bad. Stenders has avoided turning this into an outback road movie, resisting backpacker murders and crocs. It remains a psychological essay and a portrait of a destroyed soul.

Keenan is the best thing about this new version, never over-playing his part and proving yet again he is an actor to watch. Alex Dimiatrides, who turns a scene originally implied by Donald Pleasance into a reality, I think works well for a contemporary audience. The sequence will probably leave people talking. The Two-Up scene retains the spirit of the original, and thankfully recreates an iconic shot.

I’m aware I am making multiple parallels to the original film -but such are the risks of encroaching upon a masterful work. That said, if you’ve never seen Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film then this is a good entry point to Kenneth Cook’s story.

Ultimately that’s where TEN is pitching this, with a little help from the Yabba.

Wake in Fright screens 8:30pm Sunday October 8th & 15th on TEN.

12 Responses

  1. Absolute Channel 10 Rubbish. Nothing like the original. The Original was original. This latest rendition has the same dated actors playing their same dated roles. Seriously, any wannabee could have written this copy cat script with the knowledge of witnessing the original phenomenal movie. I mean… Donald Pleasance?? Again, David Wenhem is boring is his traditional bad boy role.. God, I hope this Channel improves with its new ownership.

  2. The concept of an inner city, latte sipping, man bun sporting type being as much a ‘foreigner’ as a Pom in the alien outback is perfectly valid-that some one could be so isolated from the outside world in a large country town in 2017 is, however, somewhat absurd.

  3. Looking forward to this, the movie while brilliant has a terribly outdated look about it, more so than other classic movies that are even older than 1971, so a refresh will be interesting viewting.

  4. If you seen the brilliant original feature with fantastic performances from a range of wonderful Australian and British actors watching this is only going to make you mad. Save yourself from the pain as the likelihood of disappointment will be very high.

    1. I won’t be taking your advice.

      Everything need a fresh new re-think sometimes, even your favourite tie Victor.

      There is a new TV show called Westworld. Check it out Victor. Be careful to save yourself from the pain though as the likelihood you may also actually enjoy it will be very high.

  5. “Directorially there is a heavy-handed approach…”

    David, that could sum up all TV directing in this country. When in doubt, bludgeon everything into submission with a big stick. And don’t leave any subtext – the audience might not get it.

    The original movie is one of the best movies ever made in this country. It’s both an Australian movie and not an Australian movie. It owes both its aesthetic and its penetrating gaze of the outsider to the American New Wave, which also gave us Straw Dogs and McCabe & Mrs Miller in the same year.

    What’s the editing like? What made the original so special was the risks it took with the editing (again, part of the New Wave was a re-assessment of the role of editing). Walkabout (also from 1971) also uses jaw-dropping editing, which modern film-makers seem to have abandoned.

    I really do hope they haven’t messed this up. I wonder why Ten…

    1. “I really do hope they haven’t messed this up..”
      Same here.
      I look forward to watching with interest but yes, this remake has big shoes to fill to do the original justice.
      Keenan is a great actor but yes, for maximum impact, disappointing they didn’t stick to casting a British actor in the lead, far out of his comfort zone in an alien environment.

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