★★★★ - STUFF
- A tough, superb wee Australian Western that's done its homework -
In 1919, perhaps only a year after they have been fighting a war in Europe or the Middle East, a platoon of Queensland police – an army in all but name – chance upon a family of Indigenous Australians going about their day near a river and swimming hole.
The police are wary of the locals. A push becomes a scuffle, and then the scuffle becomes a massacre. Within moments 17 men, women and children are dead. The tally includes two white policemen, who Sergeant Travis (Simon Baker) has killed in his fury at how the local people have been shot down with no warning or reason.
Twelve years later, one of the only two Indigenous survivors of the day is now a young man, Gutjuk, working for a Christian mission school. His uncle, Baywara, is a tribal leader who has taken to burning settlers out of their homesteads. The constabulary, including Travis, are brought in to capture or kill Baywara and his followers. And so Travis is set on a course that will force him to revisit the massacre and his part in it.
High Ground is a Western, of sorts. The film follows the familiar beats of the genre, with a posse of colonial troops engaged to hunt the “native troublemakers”. It's a plot that Hollywood loved in its uncomplicated way for decades, until the racist propaganda the story was founded on finally became unacceptable and we all moved on to casting sharks and aliens whenever the box-office demanded someone to boo and hiss at in the cheap seats.
But, the Western can easily stand a revisit, if only to upend the old order and then use the framework of the story to support a more honest and human examination of the not-so-distant past.
High Ground doesn't indulge in overt and easily dismissible revisionism – there are flaws and wrongdoing on both sides here – but it does at least present a slice of Australian history, based on dozens of true stories, that blows away the myth of Indigenous Australian passivity in the face of a murderous and near-genocidal foreign authority.
“You can't share a country,” blurts one of Travis' men, early in the film. Which seems at least an honest declaration of intent.
High Ground is a tough and mostly superb wee film. By playing to the rules of a classic Western's structure and pacing, the film remains every bit as engrossing and enthralling as any Western ever hoped to be. But by doing the research, honouring the actual history and binning the stereotypes and bigotry, High Ground pretty much succeeds at every level it pitches itself at.
Director Stephen Johnson (Yolngu Boy) worked for 20 years to get this film made. When he finally got the go ahead, it was with the blessing of the Yolngu people and with permission to film in parts of Australia's wildly beautiful Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park that cameras had seldom visited before. On the big screen, High Ground is breathtaking.
Anchored by performances from Baker and newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul as Gutjuk, with impressive and seamless support turns from Aussie and New Zealand stalwarts Sean Mununggurr, Aaron Pedersen, Caren Pistorious, Callan Mulvey and the veteran Jack Thompson – as Travis's wily old commander – High Ground simply doesn't have a weak link or a jarring moment.
With this and the hugely impressive The Dry still in our cinemas, I reckon our cousins in the West Island are having a post-Covid cinematic moment. Getting out and supporting them only seems like the neighbourly thing to do. Bravo.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
High Ground is now playing at Light House Petone and Cuba!
In English and Yolngu Matha with English subtitles.
(R16 - Violence, sexual violence, offensive language & nudity)