Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Madman Films

Australian cinema doesn't have a great tradition of adapting local literature for the big screen which seems odd given the number of yearly bestsellers by homegrown authors, as well as a back catalogue of classic novels and world renowned writers to plunder. Look at the recent success of The Dressmaker for one.

Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey's 2009 novel, was a bestseller as well as critically-acclaimed, so its adaptation for the big screen (by Silvey and Shaun Grant, and directed by Rachel Perkins) seems like a no-brainer. It also targets a Young Adult audience, a demographic and a genre often under-served by Australian film.

It's the summer of '69 in the small West Australian town of Corrigan, and a murderer walks among the town's folk. Not that the locals will ever be aware. As far as they, and the local police are concerned, the eldest daughter of the mayor has disappeared: at worst kidnapped, but most likely to have run-off to the 'big lights' of Perth. But 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) knows better.

On a sweltering night, and days before the alarm is raised, there's a knock on Charlie's bedroom window. It's Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), Corrigan's half-caste outcast, and he's come seeking Charlie's help. Why exactly isn't made clear (though it is better explained in the book), but the bookish Charlie agrees to go with the older, bolder boy to see what he wants -- and he soon regrets it. For down by the river, in a secluded spot, a girl (the mayor's daughter) hangs lifeless from a tree.

The secluded spot is Jasper's hideaway and the girl, Laura Wishart, was his friend. But the good people of Corrigan aren't about to see it that way: a dead white girl, a guilty black boy. Case closed. Jasper wants Charlie's help in solving the murder, and Charlie -- having helped dispose of the only evidence that a murder has occurred -- reluctantly agrees.

Jasper Jones is a study of the insidious nature of small town Australia, of injustice and of barely concealed prejudice -- it may be Australia 1969 but it could just as easily be 2017, and not just in the rural towns -- with Silvey's nods to, and inspiration drawn from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (those parallels made apparent in the book, but, wisely, less so in the adaptation; and any comparison between those films would be detrimental to what Perkins has produced).

Jasper Jones is also a coming of age story, where Charlie has his eyes opened to the harsh realities of the world and the fallibility of his parents (Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie). But its not all heavy going. There's Charlie's blush of first love with Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), although tainted somewhat given she is the younger sister of the dead girl. And then there's Charlie's friendship with the indomitable Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long), a Vietnamese migrant and cricket tragic who refuses to let the bigoted, small minds of the small town bring him down.

Sadly, just as in the book, McGrath's Jasper is a supporting player. But all of the young actors acquit themselves well, while Collette, Wyllie, Matt Nable (Corrigan's police sergeant) and Hugo Weaving (the resident crazy man, Mad Jack Lionel) provide solid support even if plot-wise, Jasper Jones is a little wobbly at times. It's a faithful if not entirely successful adaptation.

On a positive note, high school English classes will no doubt be taken along to see Jasper Jones, not only boosting the box office but hopefully fostering an ongoing interest in Australian film and literature. And that can only be a good thing: perhaps inspiring a new wave of local filmmakers, one's keen to take Australian stories from the page to the screen.

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