To Wake in Fright

What is inescapable in the Australian landscape is its cosmic character, one that mixes suggestively astral dust with the brilliance of the blinding sun. Desolate, parched earth becomes poetic affirmation, though it is the poetry of death and distraction, its stanzas luring the life from you.

Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), based on the Kenneth Cook novel of the same name, still retains that grim sense of the life that is drawn out in such spaces, and left to expire, slowly.  Its importance has been given another airing this year with the efforts of Australian film critic David Stratton in Stories of Australian Cinema.

The characters, liberated from ties of urbanised civility, go about living as if the days were their last.  The tussle between Eros and Thanatos is ever present, and the god of death certainly gets a good run for his money.

Themes of servitude abound, perhaps unsurprising given that Australia was itself a conception of prison, its colonisation inflicting the cruelty of civilisation upon prior inhabitants, not to mention its own prison population. Settler societies never expel the echo of cruelty that governs character and existence.

John Grant, the school teacher played by a trim, sharply dressed Gary Bond, speaks of his bondage to the Education Department, his condemnation to work more or less as an indentured teacher in a two-building town called Tiboonda.  There are the students; there is the cranky bar man. And there is the vast…

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