Wake in Fright Movie Review
Written by Becky Roberts
DVD released by Eureka
Novel written by Kenneth Cook
Screenplay written by Evan Jones
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
1971, 114 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
DVD released on: 7th March 2014
Donald Pleasance as ‘Doc’ Tydon
Gary Bond as John Grant
Chips Rafferty as Jack Crawford
Sylvia Kay as Janette Hynes
Jack Thompson as Dick
Peter Whittle as Joe
Al Thomas as Tim Hynes
John Meillon as Charlie
John Armstrong as Atkins
After being lost for almost thirty years and having gone through almost a decade of restoration work, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 controversial Australian thriller, Wake in Fright, is finally set for a proper UK DVD release.
Dissatisfied bonded schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) lives in the remote outback town of Tiboonda and works in a one-room school, dreaming of the Christmas holidays when he can travel to Sydney for sun, sea and surf. But when the time comes, John only makes it to his stopover point in a lowly town called Bundanyabba where he loses all of his money gambling. Unable to afford the plane to the city or the train back, he is trapped in ‘The Yabba’ for days, skimping off a self-destructive doctor (Donald Pleasance) and his yobbish friends for booze, cigarettes and a place to rest his head. In five days, John forsakes his dignity, sexuality and morality and, in the end, is left to judge whether the one cartridge left in his shotgun should be used on the one responsible: himself.
Nominee for a Palm D’Or at Cannes Film Festival in the year of its initial release, Wake in Fright is a brutal and disturbing, yet spectacular, masterpiece that sits very close to the very heart of modern Australian film. The social relevance and thematics buried in the roots of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name, from which the screenplay was adapted, convey the traditional – perhaps exaggerated, even mythical – notions of mateship and its importance to the nation. Here, it’s the charity of acquaintances and the misleading of ‘friends’ that drives this adventure.
Everyone we meet is justified to in some way influence the path of John’s self-discovery as he banishes his grounded morality to divulge in depravity and animalism. It’s a psychologically interesting journey until its bittersweet end, and the fact that Kotcheff presses that sense of frustrating entrapment in the town’s warped existence onto us makes it all the more compelling – and affecting.
But it’s the undefined relationship between the protagonist and the ‘doc’ that is particularly telling, and both Bond and Pleasance depict a remarkable realism to the two characters’ situation. The doc’s blasé attitude to life’s ‘rules’ and how John naively follows them until it’s too late to go back, is the catalyst to our hero’s ethical and physical downfall.
Soaked in visceral shock and gritty violence, its style is evocatively forthright and pithy. The ‘infamous’ Kangaroo scene – which was primarily and unruly scrutinised but actually shot on a real licensed hunt – is an obvious example of its unrelenting approach – as are its numerous scenes of cruel debauchery. The desolate landscapes in the outback setting also cast a shadow of an exhausting mood. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom; it's intervening moments of ‘laddish’ alcohol-fuelled humour bringing a short-lived, yet warranted, escapism to the underlying tone of tragic despair. It's a balance well-struck and makes the overall experience far more enjoyable than the synopsis may suggest.
All in all, Wake in Fright is a must-see classic that’s as captivating as it is hard-hitting. Its impressive restoration can only be considered a blessing in the film’s cinematic history and the generations that can now, finally, come to enjoy it.