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Tabula Rasa

The Last Wave

directed by Peter Weir. McElroy & McElroy Productions, 1977

A review by Kyla Ward

US video coverDavid: What are dreams?
Chris: Like seeing— like hearing— like talking. They are a way of knowing things.

This is the story of a man who rediscovers his dreams. Not in the heartwarming, magical, embrace-your-inner-child sense. This white, middle-class lawyer faces the fact that his dreams are premonitions, and he is dreaming of disaster. The only people who can help him are the aboriginal youths he is defending on a murder charge, but there are deep secrets here, and help may not be necessarily what they or their elders have in mind.

In Peter Weir's directorial credits, The Last Wave comes between Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975 and The Plumber in 1979. It is one of his magnificent series of early films that are exclusively Australian; that is, which are set in Australia and attempt to articulate something about the uniqueness of that setting. He has spoken of Picnic and The Last Wave as being a pair of films, both part of his working though the same theme. What it seems to me these films have in common is a sense of unease; of the colonist in a place where he does not truly belong.

It is as appropriate to explore this theme in contemporary Sydney as in rural Victoria, 1900. And this is such an exploration, an evocation, of Sydney. From the glassy high-rises with their harbour views down through the claustrophia of Redfern, down to spaces smaller still, twisting through sandstone until they reach the sewerage outfall at Bondi. To quote a member of the Sydney Cave Clan, a group who devote their time to exploring our sewers and other underground places, "That's Sydney, sandstone covered in concrete. Beautiful."

There is a social stratum as well, and this too is eminently clear in the film. David, our protagonist, keeps his car in a garage staffed by Italian migrants. The last place the victim was seen alive is a seedy Irish pub. And the most important divide lies in the wonderful line delivered by David's wife:

Annie: I'm a fourth-generation Australian. And I have never met an Aboriginal before.

Drawing on the real, bedrock mythology of an area is a tricky thing for a colonist. The screenplay is based on a short story which Peter Weir wrote while he was in England, earlier in the seventies. The film itself contains a scene where David tries to desperately fill in the blanks by visiting an expert on Aboriginal art and religion — a white, middle-class professor. She conveys the important information that the Aborigines presently inhabiting Sydney are not a tribe, not a culture. They have lost all links with their past. It is not giving too much away to say she is wrong, it is her and David who have lost their past as well as their dreams. To them, secrets are things to be uncovered and explained.

What allows The Last Wave to work, in my opinion, is that it remains true to this idea. David fails to uncover the secrets buried underneath his high-rise world, both during the trial and a more desperate, hands-on investigation. He sees things and hears things, but cannot speak, cannot prove them as he has been trained he must. It may be that what he achieves through the course of the film is acceptance of this.

It cannot be said that this is a thriller. The pace is even, measured, using repetition and foreshadowing to create a sense of impending doom. But this also creates intensity, along with the stunning visuals that are Weir's hallmark, and the endless layers of sound. You have to listen to this film as well as watch or huge pieces of information will pass you by. The Last Wave's AFI awards for sound and cinematography were fairly won. Very seldom have I seen a film that portrays natural forces so successfully; to say water is a recurring image does not suffice. The city skyline dominated by thunderheads, hail smashing windows and piling in drifts across a playground, and above all the omnipresent rain that steadily invades then destroys David's beautiful North Shore home. Dreams of rain, dreams of water, water rising, rising...

David is played by Richard Chamberlain, whose more widely-known roles include John Blackthorne in Shogun and Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds. It is a nicely understated piece of acting. Chris, the Aboriginal who is David's eventual guide is another charismatic performance from David Gulpilil. He has also been called on the enunciate Aboriginal legend in such films as Dark Age. What it may mean that his character's full name is Chris Lee, something only revealed in the credits, is unguessable. Vivean Gray, the professor, plays Miss McCraw the maths mistress in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The film received a wide cinema and video release. There was also a novelisation from Angus & Robertson, by Petru Popescu, who along with Tony Morphett helped turn Peter Weir's short story into a screenplay.

There is dreamlike quality to this film, and as said, the viewer has to do some work. It may not be to everyone's taste. But for me this is one of the best demonstrations that Australia can be haunted and haunting. It is certainly the equal of its thematic 'partner'. And with a DVD release from Criterion, The Last Wave is readily available to soothe all those Sydney-siders who like me endured the summer of 2001-2002, wondering why the weather was so strange...

 

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