It got a brief UK release in the late 1990s, but The Castle is still a comedy that’s fallen off many people’s radar: it deserves seeking out.
If you stopped an average person in the street and asked them to name their favourite Australian movie, you wouldn’t go far wrong by placing a bet on well-known classics such as Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, Muriel’s Wedding, or Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
But in doing so, you’d probably forget that you’re asking the wrong average person. I mean, the UK film industry doesn’t base its understanding of the best British film ever made on the opinion of random Antipodeans wandering round the suburbs of Sydney. If you did, they’d probably be unaware of the delights of Kind Hearts And Coronets, or the gritty realism of Nil By Mouth. No, they’d more likely reference Peter Rabbit or Johnny English on the basis that they had been decent-sized hits in recent decades.
So, what would be the view of a dyed-in-the-wool Australian? My guess is that many of them would plump for a film that barely crossed hemisphere and tell you that it’s The Castle. Heard of it? If not, then read on.
Released in 1997, The Castle was the highest-grossing Australian film at the Oz box office that year, with a final tally of over A$10.5 million. Filmed over a period of just 11 days and with a budget of A$750,000, the comedy film was a major success and solidified the image of Michael Caton, a stalwart Australian actor previously burned into the national consciousness for roles in The Sullivans and Packed To The Rafters.
The film’s narrative revolves around the Kerrigans, a happy and a-typical Australian working-class family living in a heavily-customised-by-DIY house in the suburb of Coolaroo, content with their lot in life and with no major ambitions beyond trips to Bonnie Doon, a small village near Victoria where they find serenity – “so much serenity”.
But their happy and modest existence is upended by the arrival of a compulsory purchase notice. The notice states that their home is being sold to the government so that it can be bulldozed down and the airport they live next to can be expanded and upgraded.
Of course, for many people the idea that the government is willing to pay to remove the problem that your house is situated on a toxic landfill site, next to one of the busiest airports in the country and situated directly underneath electric power lines, would be considered a lucky escape. But for the Kerrigans, who have lovingly renovated and upgraded their home with custom greyhound kennels, a pool room with a table that leans further sideways than the Tower of Pisa, and a TV next to the dinner table that ’always turned down during dinner’, the news comes as a major shock.
For Darryl (Caton), the notice to buy hits him like one of his tow-trucks. The chance that he could lose the emotional centre of his family, to lose his ‘castle’, forces him into action, and he starts legal action via incompetent local lawyer, Dennis Denuto. Unfortunately, Denuto’s main argument, that the ‘vibe’ of the notice is a problem doesn’t convince the judge, and so fate needs to intervene and provide a hand by introducing Bud Tingwell’s retired QC, Lawrence Hammill. He sees a chance to right a wrong and argue that a man’s home is more than bricks and mortar, and he takes the case to the High Court pro-bono in the fight for justice.
Now, you could be mistaken for thinking that this isn’t a plotline that’s going to grasp the subconscious of a nation, but that’s just what it did. In fact, it grabbed it so hard that in recent years, it’s been named the Top Australian film ever at the Adelaide Film Festival, and Darryl Kerrigan has been voted the character that best represents Australians.
Even to me, a British citizen that never been close to the continent, it’s clear that see why Australians have taken the film to heart. It’s a paean to the very core of the perceived modern Aussie experience – owning your own home, the pride and achievement in making it in a country where housing affordability is a major issue.
It provides a sympathetic and humorous insight into the family dynamic, showcasing an attitude of positiveness about even the smallest experiences – such as the praise offered when youngest son Dale digs a hole in the garden and how Darryl waxes lyrical about wife Sal’s level of cooking.
And fundamentally, it’s about fairness; the rights of the individual over the state. The right to ‘just terms’, and the belief that family bonds, memories and experiences can be worth more than their physical surroundings.
It’s a shame that to the rest of the world, it went largely unseen. Save for a lone mention in a Time Out London feature of the best comedy movies of all time (it came 25th) in 2011, and a 3-star review from Roger Ebert, who called it a ‘comic treasure’, the film lost money at the US box office, which left Miramax, who had bid $6m for the rights, out of pocket.
Fortunately, the failure at the box office – and it got a brief release in the UK – didn’t hurt the careers of those in the film, which was good news for a young Eric Bana, making his debut at in his first cinematic outing. He’s since gone on to do one or two other films outside his native country.
So, the next time – it’s bound to have happened before – someone stops you in the street and asks you to name your favourite Australian movie, don’t go for one of the familiar names, mention The Castle and see what the reaction is. You might well be surprised…
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