TL;DR – It is an uncomfortable snapshot of Australian society, and it is a movie I highly recommend you watch.
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
So to set the scene, it is 1960s Australia, the war is raging on in Vietnam, and we are dropped into the town of Corrigan a small town in Western Australia. It is the end of summer and Charlie (Levi Miller) and his friend Jeffrey (Kevin Long) are debating whether or not Batman is a ‘super’ hero or not whilst eating watermelon and spitting the seeds at everything they can, this could be any street in suburban Australia at any time. However, that night Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) appears at Charlie’s window and leads him across town to find Laura Wishart, the daughter of the local Shire President hanging from a tree. Jasper is the only Indigenous person in town and fears that the police will blame him for the murder, and thus the story is propelled into motion, as Jasper has to find the killer, which is complicated by Laura’s sister Eliza (Angourie Rice) becoming friendly all of a sudden.
Jasper Jones is a really interesting film, which thankfully I knew pretty much nothing about before I went to see it, I knew it was set in Australia, and it had a young cast, but that was it. It’s an interesting scenario as you have no preconceptions, you don’t know what to expect, this has not happened to me since the Forbidden Kingdom. So while I didn’t know what to expect, but even then I was surprised how dark it got for a coming of age film and it got dark super quickly.
This is a really confronting story, not just because it opens on a murder and young people having to deal with it, it is confronting because of how the people of the town react to a missing young white girl. So without any prompting who does the town blame first? Well, of course, it is Jasper Jones. But it is more than this, Jasper Jones shines an uncomfortable light on Australian society, and how we deal with issues like this. It is the casual acceptance of violence against people we don’t like, the quiet silence that everyone demonstrates when they don’t want to get involved when a member of the town attacks another because of their ethnicity, the “well it’s not my problem’ mentality, and that moment when people only care about you if you can play sport. It is a stern rebuke to 1960s Australia, and I dare say unfortunately it is still applicable today.
One of the areas Jasper Jones excels is in the performance of the cast, especially the younger actors. Most of the film is dependent on them and their performances, but they have to convey emotions about and deal with very difficult subjects convincingly. However, it is the strength of their performances that dominates Jasper Jones and the movie is all the better for it. Now I have seen Levi Miller and Angourie Rice in movies before, Pan & The Nice Guys respectively, and they had strong performances there, but they excel even further here. So much is laid upon the shoulders of Levi, as we see most of the film through his character Charlie’s perspective, so he needed to be the cornerstone for the entire movie, which is not an easy task, though Levi makes it look like it is. Another key performance is Toni Collette as Ruth, Charlie’s mother. Toni gives her all to this movie, and she goes through the full range of emotions here. She is both sympathetic, but also not very sympathetic at the same time, and that is a very fine line to play and quite easy to fumble if you don’t have the experience and diversity of roles behind you as Toni does. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention Hugo Weaving’s small role, but boy does he take it and run with it, and it is heart-breaking at times.
A lot of credit has to go to the prop wranglers and consumers, for completely nailing the time period, with cars, to clothes, to getting the maps right (I love it when period films get the maps right). As well as this, there was a great interplay with the music, where at times the soundtrack falls away and only silence or the sound effects of walking through the bush being used to magnificent effect. Indeed there is a whole sequence later in the film where an entire conversation happens with no real dialogue being spoken, and it might be the most powerful scene in the entire film. Overall there is some really strong cinematography in this film that really helps convey the emotions of the scene, like the trepidation as you enter the bush at night.
There are a couple of odd things that didn’t quite work, I don’t think the internal narration as they walked to find Laura was helpful, it felt out of place, and we don’t see it again in the movie, so it felt like an artificial addition, and just, in general, the start of the film felt a bit odd and maybe needed a little more refinement. While the story is really compelling, however, because it is aimed at a younger audience you will probably be able to tell where it is heading quite quickly.
Overall, Jasper Jones is an incredibly well-made film, with a strong cast, great locations, and a powerful story. As well as this, it shines a light on Australian society, a light that should be uncomfortable for many, or at least I hope it is. We as a society need to be better than this, and we need to engage better than what we would have in the 1960s.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Rachel Perkins
Screenplay by – Shaun Grant & Craig Silvey
Based on – Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Music by – Antony Partos
Cinematography by – Mark Wareham
Starring – Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice, Kevin Long, Matthew Nable, Dan Wyllie, Toni Collette & Hugo Weaving
Rating – Australia: M