'Dirt Music' is based on the Miles Franklin Award-winning 2001 novel by Tim Winton that people have been trying to adapt for over a decade. It's a big sprawling tale about the ancient Australian land, about loss, life, death, and redemption, about change and stagnation, but above all about love and its power to change people. At one point, Phillip Noyce was going to direct, but gave up, saying "I could never get a script that I thought captured the poetry of the novel, and there's the problem. A poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie." It eventually landed in director Gregor Jordan's ('Two Hands', 'Ned Kelly') lap, working off a script by Jack Thorne ('The Aeronauts').
We meet Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald, 'Goodbye Christopher Robin') a former nurse living a comfortable life in White Point, a gorgeous beach town on the coast of Western Australia with her significant other, Jim Buckridge (David Wenham, 'Lion'), a well-connected fisherman, and his two boys. However, even amidst all of this beauty and luxury, we see Georgie is lonely and unhappy. She doesn't fit in with the other townies, wakes before sunrise to skinny-dip in the water and day drinks white wine until she falls asleep on the couch. A chance meeting with Lu Fox (the perpetually underrated Garrett Hedlund, 'Mudbound'), who's poaching Jim's lobster traps, creates a spark of interest and intrigue.
On the surface and in the beginning, this is a passionate and forbidden love story between two sad, lonely, very good-looking people. Lu is a broken man, so broken that he can't even be bothered to give his dog a name, play music or listen to it anymore. His past is a mystery. He was part of a family of folk singers (one of whom is real-life singer Julia Stone) - but something tragic happened involving a little girl, his niece, that he won't quite let himself remember fully.
Georgie, meanwhile, is not an easy character to get inside. She's self-destructive with sex and booze; her main coping mechanism is plunging into bodies of water. But she rarely says exactly what she's thinking - or when she does, it seems too little too late. The script is frustratingly obtuse at times.
'Dirt Music', as the title would suggest, has gorgeous songs interwoven during the film, allowing Hedlund, who first showcased his singing voice in 'Country Strong', to show off his chops. The importance of music accentuates the meaning of life within the movie, allowing the audience to try and get a better understanding of what Hedlund's character's journey is.
Set in the lush landscape of the Dampier Peninsula and Esperance (standing in for Winton's mythical White Point), 'Dirt Music' captures the serenity of the coast and islands. Cinematographer Sam Chiplin (with underwater photography by Rick Rifici) has crafted an incredibly beautiful film, one that powerfully portrays the unique landscape of coastal Western Australia. After Jim finds out about Georgie and Lu's affair, Lu leaves White Point to find a new home in the rugged Australian outback and escape the ghosts of his past. The third act is largely man versus nature, with cinematic shots of Hedlund in the Kimberly region, a plateau area with deep valleys, watering holes and white beaches. Unfortunately, while the environment is breathtaking, it's a challenge to emotionally connect to it.
Small town talk, everyone knowing everyone's business and never being able to escape your past is a vital part of the story - if you've ever lived in a small town, this certainly rings true - but the film never delves deep enough into how everyone is connected.
Small town talk, everyone knowing everyone's business and never being able to escape your past is a vital part of the story - if you've ever lived in a small town, this certainly rings true - but the film never delves deep enough into how everyone is connected. And while we can live without a deep understanding of the White Point economy and Jim's standing in it (is he a Tony Soprano-style kingpin or just an aged version of small town hero Diver Dan?), it becomes problematic that the story's protagonist, Georgie, never feels like a fully-drawn character. Why is she so lost? Why is she with Jim in the first place? Why does the monosyllabic Lu inspire her to blow up her life?
'Dirt Music' suffers the same flaws as all of the cinematic adaptions of Tim Winton's work. There's the gratingly simplistic dialogue that has a poetic lyricism on paper but often just ends up sounding silly when spoken aloud - Kelly Macdonald is often saddled with stilted lines like: "Do I have reason to fear you?" The side characters and details that either get unsatisfactory nods or are brushed over completely, like Aaron Pedersen's Beaver, a complicated lonely ex-con mechanic who is reduced to an exposition machine. The weird sub-plots that make for a confusing and jarring viewing experience, like Georgie's visit with her wealthy dysfunctional family in Perth after the death of her mother, which reminded me of Zack Braff's 'Garden State'.
The one thing that director Jordan (as well as Simon Baker, 'Breath', James Bogle, 'In the Winter Dark', and the small army behind 'The Turning') was able to perfectly translate from Winton's novels is his evocative descriptions of raw, overpowering nature. Winton's writing is at its strongest when the landscape takes over and it's unsurprising that this aspect is the most easily carried over to the visual medium of film.
'Dirt Music' asks the audience to embrace two lost characters who eventually go to the edge of the earth to find themselves. But, for us, they remain strangers to the end.