Jasper Jones is certainly one of the stronger Australian films that we’ve seen in recent years, but it falls just short of achieving the status of beloved classic.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Appearances: we’re all very quick to judge one another by what we see on the outside, and how this fits in with society’s expectations, but what really goes on behind closed doors can be a very different story.
It’s these sorts of prejudices and secrets that fuel the story of new Australian film Jasper Jones – based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Craig Silvey. Set in the 1960’s in a fictional, rural Western Australian town, Jasper Jones follows 14-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), who inadvertently becomes tangled up in the town mystery surrounding the disappearance of Laura Wishart. The finger is immediately pointed at mixed race outcast Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), who enlists Charlie’s help to prove what really happened to the beautiful girl next door, but the deeper Charlie digs, the darker the truths he uncovers. This all becomes further complicated by Laura’s younger sister and object of Charlie’s affections Eliza (Angourie Rice), Charlie’s overprotective mother (Toni Collette) and dangerous town hermit Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving).
In trying to cover so many storylines – often shifting in tone from light and humorous, to foreboding and thrilling – Jasper Jones does become an uneven viewing experience at times. It explores almost every possible theme associated with a small Australian town in the 1960’s, from the Vietnam War to the corruption of those with power, and this often detracts from the core conflict. For me, the enigma of Jasper Jones is the most intriguing and engaging part of the story, so I found deviations to frivolous scenes such as a community cricket game to be enjoyable, yet slightly annoying distractions. Additionally, drawn out moments of Charlie considering all the clues bring the pacing of the film to a grinding halt.
Similar to Fences, I think more could have been done to fully transform this narrative for the screen. As an example (mild spoiler alert), when Jasper first approaches Charlie for help, we’re provided long takes of the pair skulking throughout the town, with a voice over from Levi Miller expressing Charlie’s uncertainty and rationale behind following Jasper – someone he barely even knows. There’s a lot of telling and not a lot of showing going on, and I feel these scenes would have had far more impact and would have been far more credible if the audience had already been introduced to Jasper and how he is perceived by both Charlie and the rest of the town.
Having said all that, this doesn’t mean that director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) has done poorly. On the contrary, there are some outstanding dramatic scenes sprinkled throughout the film that allow the all-star cast to shine. Hugo Weaving and Aaron L. McGrath steal the show in an intensely moving confrontation, while Susan Prior, who plays the mother of Laura and Eliza Wishart, packs a real emotional gut-punch during a crucial moment. Toni Collette is on fire from start to finish with her usual authenticity and sincerity, and Levi Miller (Peter Pan, Red Dog) and Angourie Rice (These Final Hours, The Nice Guys) are often left to carry the weight of the film and do so satisfactorily.
Backing up the high calibre performances is stunning production design that brings the era to life most convincingly, and the gorgeous cinematography really shows it off. Overall, Jasper Jones is a welcome addition to the repertoire of Australian film, but it’s not quite the absolute knock-out I was hoping for.
Jasper Jones is available in Australian cinemas from March 2nd
Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment