Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Paramount Pictures/Transmission
Now Showing

It is almost ingrained in the Australian psyche to champion the underdog. Success is for tall poppies and what we Aussies do to them is also well and truly ingrained. Everyone knows of Gallipoli, that tragic and failed military campaign, and our nation's coming of age of sorts. But few, certainly not me, have heard the story of Hill 60.

In Belgium during World War I, a group of Australian miners helped change the course of the war, tunneling under the German frontline and planting explosives which would produce the largest explosion in human history, one not surpassed until Hiroshima in 1945. Coming so soon in the wake of Gallipoli, the feat of these ordinary Australians (for they were not soldiers) was perhaps too soon to be celebrated. But to be all but forgotten seems unjust.

Perhaps that's why writer, David Roach, and director, Jeremy Hartley Sims, felt the need to tell this story. That and the inherent drama that comes with any film set during war, especially the more tangible environs of the trenches of Europe. And while there's a lot of mud and rain in Beneath Hill 60 (and the occasional 'over the bags' action), as the title implies, most of the story unfolds underground.

Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell) was an engineer prior to the war but didn't sign-up until the call went out for his particular skills set. With only a couple of weeks training, he finds himself in Belgium and in command of a platoon of Australian miners. They resent the arrival of the newcomer but there's no time for grudges; nothing can produce closer bonds faster than sharing a dug-out in the mud with your fellow Aussie.

These scenes in the tunnels are by turns dramatic, tense and even humourous. You need some levity when your enemy is digging less than a metre from you and could burst through the wall at any given moment. Or those same walls could simply collapse, burying you alive. It is in these scenes that Sims' film excels.

What didn't work for me were the flashbacks; glimpses into Woodward's life prior to the war with the family of a fallen friend and his much younger sweetheart, Marjorie Waddell (Bella Heathcoate). These sequences felt stage-y to me and Heathcoate I found grating. Whenever she spoke, I had the same reaction I would to fingernails on a blackboard.

Those quibbles aside, Beneath Hill 60 boasts an impressive ensemble of Australian actors, known and unknown (young Harrison Gilbertson, who also stars in next week's Accidents Happen, is a star on the rise), and is beautifully shot; the $9 million budget is on display and lends itself to the big screen. It's also a good story well told, one which will resonate more so this time of year.

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