★★★★ - STUFF
Back in 2012, I was gently blindsided by a wee Australian gem (pun intended) called The Sapphires. The film was a fictionalised account of an all-woman, all-indigenous vocal group touring the Australian army bases in Vietnam, circa 1968. The Sapphires ticked all the boxes for a feel-good musical rom-com. The performances were fine, the story bounced along and the songs were uniformly terrific. But what lifted The Sapphires above the merely entertaining, was the deft subversiveness within the script. Amongst all the usual beats of the genre, The Sapphires asked some genuinely tough questions of its audience regarding race-relations across the Tasman, with a parable of “the Stolen Generation” woven tightly into the script.
Top End Wedding is the follow-up film from director Wayne Blair. And, as with The Sapphires, this is a film with far more going on beneath the surface than a glance at the plot might reveal. Lauren and Ned are young lawyers in love in Adelaide. When Ned proposes, Lauren’s ferocious softy of a boss gives her 10 days away from the office to get wed. No worries. Surely 10 days is plenty of time to organise a family wedding, a mere 3000km away in Darwin, where Lauren’s parents live? Only trouble is, once in Darwin, Lauren is told by her tearful dad that mum has absconded, possibly with another bloke, in the general direction of her ancestral Tiwi lands on Melville Island (Yermalner), hundreds of km further to the north.
After a slightly stilted and boiler-plate opening stanza, Top End Wedding starts to spread its wings once Lauren and Ned hit the road. As the suburbs of Darwin recede, Top End Wedding gets itself into parts of Australia that seldom make it onto our movie screens. The Aboriginal communities of the far north might make an unlikely setting for a rom-com, but Blair makes the transition not just seamless, but exhilarating.
Actor-turned-director Blair describes himself – magnificently – as a Batjala Mununjali Wakkawakka man. Miranda Tapsell (Larrakia, born and raised in Kakadu National Park) plays Lauren and also wrote the script. The team get moments on to the screen that softly speak volumes of their knowledge of this place and these people. Everyone on screen is treated with respect, but there is also a warmth and mischievousness in these scenes that maybe only filmmakers who know the community would have been able to locate. In the leads, Tapsell (The Sapphires), Gwilym Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker) are all more than fine, with a second tier cast of mostly first-timers providing plenty of highlights.
Top End Wedding is as contrived, ridiculous and as nakedly ambitious-to-entertain as the rom-com genre demands. But it also gets a lot of stuff right that almost every other rom-com I’ve ever seen wouldn’t even know to attempt. Not knowing what to expect, I ended up cheerfully besotted with this film. Bravo.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF