High-energy performances from Geoffrey Rush as a comical priest and American Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy as the pretty love-interest, boosts the marquee value of Bran Nue Dae, a faithful version of the popular Australian stage musical. While well known to many Down-Under fans, Bran Nue Dae has too much comic kitsch for U.S. specialty film audiences. Unfortunately, director Rachel Perkins' movie adaptation also lacks sufficient mainstream appeal to gain screens at American multiplexes. Bran Nue Dae looks to be a commercial hit Down-Under but will likely fall through the theatrical cracks when Freestyle Releasing opens the musical in U.S. arthouses in September 2010.
It's 1969 and Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is an Aboriginal teen leaving behind the girl of his dreams, Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), and his Western Australia coastal hometown of Broome to attend Father Benedictus' (Geoffrey Rush) Catholic boarding school in faraway Perth. Homesick for Rosie, the innocent Willie runs away from the school and returns to Broome with the help of local drunkard Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo reprising his stage role). With the help of a hippie chick (Australian singer/songwriter ‘Missy' Higgins) and her German boyfriend (Tom Budge), Willie and Uncle Tadpole climb aboard the couple's candy-colored VW Van and return to Broome, but not before experiencing numerous slapstick adventures and breakout musical dance numbers.
Rush does his best to generate laughs as the film's cliché Catholic priest but he overacts to the point of irritation. He drops his pants in one scene to reveal checked boxer shorts, black dress socks and garter belts, and even carries a paddle with the phrase "Thou Shall Not Steal" ingrained on the board (used to punish the students who swipe chocolate bars and bottles of Coke).
Mauboy is the one cast member who rises above the silly material. Perfectly cast (her father is Timorese and her mother is Aboriginal) and very pretty, Mauboy is all smiles and charisma and responsible for the film's best musical numbers. A runner-up on the fourth season of American Idol (2006) and a popular singer/songwriter, Mauboy shows plenty of onscreen talent as well. She, not Rush, is the true star of the movie.
Perkins and co-writers Reg Cribb and Jimmy Chi are straightforward in their adaptation of the '80s stage musical, which was the first Aboriginal musical when it premiered 20 years ago. Imagine a movie based on the long-running stage musical Nunsense and you'll understand the level of slapstick gags and silly songs throughout Bran Nue Dae.
Perkins has a number of Aboriginal-themed documentaries to her credit as well as the feature films Radiance (1998) and One Night the Moon (2001), which played the U.S. festival circuit. However, Perkins emphasizes the film's kitschy humor over its sociopolitical themes until the historical conflict between Australians and the Aboriginal community is reduced to an afterthought.
Production Designer Felicity Abbott recreates '60s era Australia with a colorful attention to detail and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Fellowship of the Ring) makes beautiful use of the Australian Outback and its crimson dirt. Choreographer Stephen Page is less successful in making Bran Nue Dae come alive onscreen, as he's so often hamstrung by the silliness of the plot.
The same thing can be said of Perkins, who reveals strong technical skills by directing a polished, fast-paced, feel-good musical but fails to make the next Aussie comedy hit, a Muriel's Weddin or Strictly Ballroom for example, because Bran Nue Dae is too hammy for its own good.
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Cast: ‘Missy' Higgins, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush and Tom Budge
Director: Rachel Perkins
Screenwriters: Rachel Perkins, Reg Cribb and Jimmy Chi
Producers: Graeme Isaac and Robyn Kershaw
Running time: 88 min
Release date: September 10 ltd., September 17 Exp.