Jasper Jones (2017)

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This is a warm and sensitive adaptation by director Rachel Perkins of Craig Silvey’s excellent Australian novel of the same name. The film aims squarely at a mainstream and younger audience than the book, pulling its punches to just touch on the themes of racism and abuse that are central to the story of Charlie Bucktin’s awakening from childhood innocence in the rural town of Corrigan in the 1960s.

Charlie (played convincingly by Levi Miller of Pan and Red Dog: True Blue) wakes one night to bad boy Jasper Jones (an engaging Aaron L McGrath) at his window, asking for his help. He has never spoken to Jasper before but follows him into the bush where young Laura Wishart hangs ghost-like from the branch of a giant eucalypt. So starts the journey of both Charlie and Jasper as they try to find out who is responsible for Laura’s death whilst avoiding Jasper becoming a scapegoat because of his Aboriginality.

Before the arrival of Jasper at his window, Charlie’s world seems to be that of any rural, white middle-class child; he spends his days reading, fancies Laura’s sister, Eliza Wishart, but is too clueless to do anything about it, plays with his best friend Jeffrey Lu, oblivious to the racism he experiences and feels loved but overly protected by his parents. Jasper is the catalyst that shows him the cracks and inequities in the neat and tidy town of Corrigan.

There is a little bit of narration at the start where we hear Charlie’s thoughts as he explains (to fast track the audience’s understanding and a little clunkily) the context of Jasper in the community. The novel relies a lot on Charlie’s narration – you are immersed in his thoughts and realisations – and so this was not unexpected. Narration in films is hard to do well, though, particularly where it is used for exposition and so I was a little relieved that it didn’t continue past this opening scene. It allowed us to observe, just like Charlie, and draw our own conclusions.

The strength of Jasper Jones is in its characters and the film does well to build some complexity in the short time it has. You get a good sense of Jasper, his past and his future, and Charlie’s mother Ruth (Toni Collette) is complex and flawed; you can understand Charlie’s love hate relationship with her. Charlie’s passivity is sometimes frustrating but feels authentic, as the slow shedding of his innocence is at the heart of the story.

I wanted to see more of Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long), Charlie’s best friend who is obsessed with cricket. He has some of the best lines and it is his irrepressible optimism in the face of persistent racism that helps Charlie understand what courage is. Eliza (Angourie Rice) is a stoic character who hides much behind her facade of well-bred gentility but in the film felt a little shallow and stilted.

We miss the gritty depths of the novel; the racism seems somewhat peripheral and too easily rectified and we skate over the tragedy at the heart of Laura’s story. There are some powerful scenes though; the isolation of the waterhole, Jasper and Mad Dog and the understatement of the scene toward the end with the cup of tea has stayed with me.

Although set a decade later, the depiction of rural town life reminded me of The Dressmaker; Mad Dog Lionel (Hugo Weaving) on the hill, well-dressed, well-bred people wanting to know and turn a blind eye to other people’s business, neat and tidy streets mostly empty of people. I think it will appeal to a similar audience; those with a nostalgia for the remembered simplicity of our rural past, perhaps hoping that such small-town prejudice no longer exists.

Currently screening in cinemas.

Bechdel test – fail
4 stars

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