Tim Winton is hard to adapt for the screen. Do it right, as in Simon Baker’s 2017 feature directing debut, Breath, and you can wind up with something quite special, a thoughtful meditation on adolescence and loss, with a palpable sense of time and place. Do it wrong, as in Gregor Jordan’s take on Winton’s 2001 novel, Dirt Music, and you wind up with a soporific seaside soap opera. Yes, I’m proud of the alliteration, but the point still stands. Despite some truly beautiful location work, the screen iteration of Dirt Music has no sense of itself, let alone a sense of cultural and geographic connection to its setting.
Indeed, as adapted by screenwriter Jack Thorne (Skins, Enola Holmes, and we’ll circle back around to this guy’s Britishness before long), Dirt Music plays out more like Nicholas Sparks than Winton, and not in a good way (I’ll go to the mat for The Notebook any day). In a remote fishing village on the WA coast (exact location nebulous, possibly mythic) free spirit Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald) is beginning to get restless, chafing in her relationship with local crayfish captain Jim Buckridge (David Wenham). Following a chance encounter with hunky, brooding, local recluse Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), she embarks on a passionate affair with the former musician. But he harbours a tragic past (of course he does), being – literally in the language of the film – haunted by his dead family, who perished in a car accident. He’s also a crayfish poacher, which sets him up for conflict with Jim. How will it all play out?
Well, frankly, who cares? There’s a weird, timid lack of passion and chemistry to the proceedings. Dirt Music the film lacks the nuance and texture required for a subtle approach to its relationships, but also holds back from going completely melodramatic. The basic narrative structure could have supported either approach, but what it can’t do is function under the weird middle of the road approach that director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands) has taken, which vacillates between the elliptical and the comically on the nose. It’s clear that the design goal here is lyricism, but the end result is Hallmark card stanza rather than Romantic epic.
The cast do what they can; all else aside, Australian dialect coaches have come a long way in the past decade or two, and neither Macdonald nor Hedlund stumble noticeably when affecting the notoriously difficult Strine twang (it’s a bit weird that Georgie, her sister, and her father all sport different regional accents, though). Hedlund and Wenham at least have archetypes to work with; the latter the jealous patriarch, the former the tortured artist, and Wenham even gets to reveal some deeper layers to Jim as the narrative progresses. Macdonald, however, is hamstrung by Georgie being an underwritten cipher. We never understand who he is and what drives her to make the choices that define her. A brief interlude at a family funeral hints at formative dysfunction, but ultimately fails to illuminate the character. Theoretically, her decision to pursue Lu after he lights out halfway through the film for a self-imposed exile on the rugged Kimberley coast should be a defining moment, but it comes across as impulsive and ultimately meaningless.
That could be leavened if there was the slightest hint of chemistry between Hedlund and Macdonald, but there simply is not, and there’s not much anyone can do if sparks fail to fly between your romantic leads. The two actors are normally fine performers (Hedlund, much like Colin Farrell, is a character actor unfortunate enough to be mistaken for a leading man early in his career), but opposite each other, in this dynamic, they are inert. Their fling is bizarrely passionless and perfunctory, their sex scene decidedly unsexy, and so all the drama that flows from their liaison seems unearned.
It’s all strung together with a horribly ill-conceived translation of prose to script. Screenwriter Thorne has no feel for the characters, the culture, and the places of Dirt Music. I’m normally not a big fan of trying to proscribe writers from writing about cultures they do not belong to, as it strikes me as an ass-backwards approach to real, systemic issues of representation in the arts, but here the results speak for themselves, and with more authenticity than Thorne’s attempt at Winton’s dialogue. Lines ring false, colloquialisms feel out of place, and basically nobody sounds like actual, dirt-under-the-fingernails rural, working class Western Australians sound, which might be fine if you’re going for a deliberately heightened reality, but Winton’s knack as a writer is being both lyrical and authentic, and if that was an easy trick every hack would be doing it. Thorne misses the mark and that, combined with the aforementioned chemistry issues, pretty much scuppers the whole enterprise.
So, Dirt Music: an unromantic romance, a dramatically inert drama, and WA story that fundamentally misunderstands WA. Really nice scenery, though, wonderfully shot by cinematographer Sam Chiplin. Just imagine what we’ve have if someone had put a good movie in front of his camera. (3/10)