In a land of such vivid self-expression, the recent crop of Australian movies have been disappointingly sparse in their dialogue. The fashion has been for dark movies with brooding characters, who do not have a great deal to say. The Australian road movie, Last Ride, starring Hugo Weaving (and Lake Gairdner in South Australia), may have been exquisitely shot and acted, but Weaving's damaged outlaw was the strong, silent and occasionally psychotic type. Beautiful Kate, another of last year's critical successes, was a film of rich story-lines but a meagre script. As for Samson and Delilah, the outback love story which was a winner at Cannes in 2009, the point was to explore a largely speechless relationship between two Aboriginal teenagers.
So Animal Kingdom, which has been described as the best Australian film in a decade, is a treat: an Aussie movie oozing with sharp lines, clever turns of phrase and spellbinding set-piece scenes. It is the debut feature film of David Michod, who both wrote and directed it, and has already picked up the dramatic jury prize for world cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Set in the mean suburbs of Melbourne, it tells the story of a dysfunctional criminal family, the Codys, as they try to outwit the Victoria Police - a force, as depicted here, with renegade officers prepared to dispense their own brutal form of justice. It opens with "J", an awkward teenager who has just arrived home to find Deal or No Deal on the television, and his mother dead on the sofa. She has overdosed on drugs. The film then follows him as he is welcomed, grudgingly by his uncles and over-happily by his grand-mother, into the heroin-peddling gang.
Go see it for yourself - and given its success at Sundance, it will no doubt be screened beyond these shores - but the performances are simply outstanding. International audiences will recognize Guy Pearce, who plays a police detective, but the other homegrown stars are less well -known outside of Australia. They should be, and perhaps soon will be on the strength of their performances in Animal Kingdom. There is Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Pope, the homicidal head of gang. There is Joel Edgerton, who played opposite Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire and is a familiar face in Australia. But the stand-out performance comes from Jacki Weaver, one of those Aussie actresses who pops up all over the place, who plays the matriarch of the family - Smurf, a platinum blond whose relationship with her sons borders on the incestuous without actually crossing into it. The New York Times has rated her performance as among the five best of the mid-year releases.
Because it focuses on the Melbourne underworld, Animal Kingdom has inevitably been compared to Channel Nine's ratings winner, Underbelly. But that's like assessing a bottle of Grange, Australia's most collectible wine, against a $A30 bottle of Shiraz.
As we noted in this blog earlier in the year, Underbelly has raised questions about the glamorization of violence If that is truly the case, Animal Kingdom is the gritty corrective.
Given nine stars out of ten by our old friends Margaret and David, the Siskel and Ebert of Australia, it is surely destined to become an Australian movie classic.