Light, easy watching punctuated with moments of touching drama, Last Cab to Darwin follows in the footsteps of Bran Nue Dae and Red Dog as a typical Australian film that fails to challenge the norm.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Broken Hill taxi driver Rex (Michael Caton) abandons his hometown, and his dysfunctional neighbour Polly (Ningali Lawford) – who also happens to be the love of his life – in order to make the 3,000 plus kilometre drive to Darwin to meet Dr Farmer (Jackie Weaver), whom he believes will assist him to be voluntarily euthanised via a new system she has invented. Having never before left the boundaries of rural New South Wales, Rex encounters many weird and wonderful experiences throughout his journey across the outback, from a famous tree with dead feral cats hanging from its branches, to the unreliable, yet loveable larrikin Tilly (Mark Coles Smith). This young, Indigenous man joins Rex for the ride, as does London-born nurse turned local barmaid Julie (Emma Hamilton), but when they eventually arrive at the Northern Territory capital, things do not exactly go as expected…
While Last Cab to Darwin brings a few relatively fresh ideas to the table, when it comes to its structure as a road movie, and its identity as an Australian film, it really is same old, same old. The central relationship between a mature-aged man and an Indigenous woman set against the euthanasia debate is certainly rich material full of potential, however, director Jeremy Sims once again provides viewers with a depiction of Australia as a collection of isolated towns filled with simple, yet hardworking people who seem to spend all of their time at the pub.
On one hand, I appreciated his detailed exploration of some of the more unique, and lesser known places dotted along the route from inland NSW to the peak of the country, as opposed to playing to traditional landmarks such as Ayers Rock, but I think I speak for many when I express my apathy toward another Australian film exploring the rural lifestyle. There have been some outliers in recent times with award winning films such as The Babadook, The Little Death and Predestination leading the way into new territory, so it is disappointing to see a return to the norm.
In addition, Last Cab to Darwin also seems to take a bit of a backwards step in regards to Indigenous issues through its portrayal of the character of Tilly. Mark Coles Smith even admitted his concerns in potentially reiterating negative stereotypes at a question and answer session at Luna Cinemas during the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. Fortunately, Smith delivers an equally comedic and heart-warming performance as Tilly, and manages to dig into some fairly dark places for some of the more heavy scenes with the character eventually redeeming himself in the end.
Michael Caton is the film’s saving grace with his quiet, and down-to-earth performance that is both credible in the demise of his health, and affecting in his emotional journey, but even his possible career-best effort is not adequate to prevent the final act of the film from dragging on. An overbearing score attempts to force the drama during the climactic scenes, rather than allowing the tension to build organically through the talents of the actors, and I found I was restless and disinterested for much of the final thirty minutes.
As the second Australian film to be adapted from a play in so many months – with July’s substandard Ruben Guthrie being the other – perhaps some of the outdated concepts can be owed to the fact that the source material is more than a decade old. Originally penned by Reg Cribb, he and Sims collaborated to script the feature film version in a follow up to their 2006 stage to screen production, the similarly titled Last Train to Freo.
Sims’ direction is not entirely without success, however; his decision to use actual tourists during a scene set in an outback restaurant allows for some beautifully authentic reactions, and he enlists some picturesque visuals of the landscapes from cinematographer Steve Arnold. Despite its flaws, I believe the story will be a crowd pleaser; unlike grittier Australian productions including Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, it should appeal to a wide audience, and gain a decent return at the box office.
Last Cab to Darwin is available in Australian cinemas from Thursday August 6
Images courtesy of Icon Film Distribution Australia