Stupid men in a brutal land

Lucky Country, Kriv Stenders, Aden YoungAustralia, 1902. One year since Federation. The nation is a sickly child, as yet unaware of its weakness. It looks at the fertile land in the south and the east and sees a playground for adventure and prosperity. It is deceived.

Such is the pessimistic historical vision offered by filmmaker Kriv Stenders in his new film, a psychological thriller cum Australian western, Lucky Country.

'A lot of middle class people upped stumps from their city lives to do these tree changes, and thought they could farm the land', says Stenders. 'It was one of the tragedies [screenwriter] Andy Cox discovered ... these people coming out to this harsh place thinking they could tame it or control it, when in fact it was controlling them.'

Lucky Country centres on one such misguided tree-changer, Nat (Aden Young). Nat is a widower, and sole parent to his teenage daughter Sarah (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) and young son Tom (Toby Wallace). He is increasingly desperate, and questionably sane amid the unforgiving landscape.

This is not just a period drama. It's a fable for our modern times. 'Really, nothing's changed', says Stenders. 'You only have to look at the floods and the bushfires of recent times to realise the landscape controls us, we don't control it. Our presence on this land is tenuous — it has been and it still is.'

Lucky Country seems a bleak assessment of human nature. The arrival of three strangers (Pip Miller, Neil Pigot and Eamon Farren) tests the mettle and the loyalties of all three family members. Especially when they learn one of the men has discovered gold. Gold fever tinges characters' eyes. Greed and self-interest reign.

'I wouldn't say it's bleak', says Stenders. 'It's realistic. The film is a morality tale. It's about the evil men are capable of. We set out to make something entertaining and engaging, with a lot of betrayal and subterfuge and psychological cat and mouse games. That requires a certain aggressive tone and a certain darkness.'

The film is dark, but it is also far more lush and epic than Stenders' previous, low-budget drama Boxing Day.

'We shot it outside of Adelaide at Mt Bold. I was looking for somewhere where I could hide the camera crew, hide the trucks, and shoot in any direction, using the methodology we used on Boxing Day, which was putting the camera into that world and following the characters inside that world rather than looking at them from a distance.

'Westerns are timeless, and it's great to make an Australian one. We have the history and the landscape for them. We didn't want a small Australian film, we wanted a big, bold, epic film.'

Boxing Day was in part a meditation on the displacement of Indigenous Australians, so it seems incongruous that Lucky Country, set during the difficult dawn of the Australian nation, contains no Indigenous characters. It was a deliberate exclusion, says Stenders.

'They weren't pertinent to the story', he says. 'If you put them in they would have been token, and forced. It was very much about white Australia and these stupid men in this beautifully harsh and brutal landscape, and the madness and drama that comes out of that juxtaposition of male human folly in this environment.'

Here, the Indigenous story would of course have been very different. Respect for and understanding of the power and possibilities of the land are central to Indigenous culture.

'Exactly', says Stenders. 'Nat thinks he can hear the land, thinks he's in control of it, but he's a complete fool. And the other men are all driven by much more base, much more primal, instincts.'

Just as Nat tries to turn a piece of untamed countryside to his farming purposes, Stenders has taken a piece of Australian bush and turned it into a film set. This wasn't without its logistical difficulties but, as Stenders says, 'everything that was difficult we turned to our advantage'.

'It's great when it's difficult because it forces everyone to work much harder, and that energy and effort in some way is up there on screen, imbued in the film. That's what you want to give an audience ... a sense that you've worked hard for something, not done it leisurely and easily. Difficulty is a good thing.'

If that's true, then Lucky Country, perhaps inadvertently, is not only a bleak parody of the struggles of Australia's pioneers, but is also a tribute to them.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: kriv stenders, lucky country, aden young, federation, indigenous australians, colonial, pioneer

 

 

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