Written by Evan Jones
Adapted from the novel by D.H.
Directed by Tim Burstall
At the USA Copley
AUSTRALIA is the land of koalas, kangaroos and golden beaches. Social unrest seems alien to the territory. But in Sydney in the early '20s, D.H. Lawrence found budding revolution rather than peace, and his experiences inspired Kangaroo, an autobiographical novel about his dissatisfaction with Australian politics.
The screen adaptation centers around Richard Somers (Colin Friels) and his wife Harriet (Judy Davis), who represent the Lawrences in the final years of D.H.'s life, just before he loses his battle against tuberculosis. Fleeing English persecution inflicted because Harriet is a German and Somers writes "pornography," the two set out for a new life in Australia where neither is any happier.
Lawrence's fascinating tale gives a brief but detailed glimpse of the fascist and socialist movements in Sydney in 1922, a piece of history generally lost to the world because neither movement succeeded in the revolutions they tried to bring to the land down under.
As a noted European revolutionary and poet, Somers is sought after by both factions to justify their ideas to the public. While he and his wife attempt to settle down so that he can write, his neighbors try to involve him in their fascist organization, offering him a ministry when the planned revolution is complete. Soon the socialists begin also to woo Somers, with the enticement of editorship of a socialist newspaper. His inner struggle to choose between the two provides Kangaroo with dramatic intensity.
The film deserves its several Australian Academy Award nominations for more than its drama. The acting is nearly flawless; and the filming, particularly of the beautiful Australian tropics and breathtaking beaches, is among the best I've seen.
Unfortunately, Kangaroo fails to satisfy the viewer. The problems, whether faults of Lawrence's writing, Evan Jones' screenplay, or Tim Burstall's directing, lie in the characters. Not one is likeable, an aspect of the film which both irritates the audience and makes it impossible for the viewer to care about their concerns.
The characters seem to be caricatures rather than real personalities. General Kangaroo (Hugh Keays-Byrne), for instance, is a one-dimensional fascist, a leader without compassion, love or warmth. He has no traits other than greed and we are left wondering why his devoted cultish followers would ever have taken him seriously.
Harriet Somers, performed brilliantly by Davis, comes closest to being a convincing character. She is generally concerned about her husband, interested and aware of his politics, and is a strong and intelligent woman. But she too is one-dimensional, played for the most part as a tyrannical shrew.
And, of course, there is the enigma of Richard Somers. Although he is an unlikeable, pompous snob, his inner conflicts are potentially compelling. He is intensely torn between Kangaroo and the Reds between power and the ideals he fought for in England. But the audience cannot become involved because the conflict is not believable
The fascist elements pulling at Somers are insane and psychopathic. General Kangaroo announces at one point that he is having "an auction for the soul of Richard Somers." In another scene he demands Somers' unconditional love, which he says he deserves because he is a superior human being. The audience watches Kangaroo from Somers' eyes and cannot understand why Somers even considers this dangerous lunatic's offers, much less why he treats them as rational requests.
This deficiency in character development gives a bitter aftertaste to Kangaroo. Because we don't like any of the characters and can't relate to the central conflict in the drama, we are left slightly disturbed.
D.H. Lawrence left Australia after six weeks because he was dissatisfied with its character. After seeing this movie, we are dissatisfied with his.