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‘Kangaroo’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 15, 1987

Australia as the mild, mild West; the violent confluence of socialism and fascism; the search for identity -- these are just some of the strands that run elusively through "Kangaroo," an Australian adaptation of a semiautobiographical novel spun out of D.H. Lawrence's brief stay in that country in the early 1920s.

"Kangaroo" opens in the middle of World War I. Writer Richard Somers (Colin Friels) and his German-born wife Harriet (Judy Davis) are relaxing in their English coastal house when the police make a late-night call. Somewhat clumsily, director Tim Burstall establishes that the dour Somers is a conscientious objector who has written radical tracts on politics and sex (though neither seems really to interest him beyond the theoretical stage). After a degrading physical examination at the draft board, Somers opts for self-imposed exile. Cut to Australia, where the couple eventually ends up -- as did Lawrence and his German-born wife, Frieda.

In Australia, which they intellectualize as an uncompromised and still unshaped land of opportunity, the Somers are sudden neighbors to Jack and Vicki Calcott, typically ruddy, down-to-earth Aussies of the urban variety (no Kangaroo Dundees here). The disillusioned Jack Calcott (John Walton) has come out of the Great War with political tunnel vision and a membership in a fascist paramilitary group called the Diggers.

This group is led by a wealthy, charismatic and insecure old general, code-named Kangaroo (Hugh Keays Byrne), and here's where the credibility problems begin. Film-goers are asked to believe that this superfascist -- who intends to crush the emerging trade unions and take over the country, and has already created an infrastructure toward that end -- suddenly needs Somers' intellectual discourse to ennoble and validate his plans. "A country does not exist until it has found a voice," someone suggests, and so what if that voice is not authentic, much less focused? It sounds like Kangaroo's just looking for a good publicist.

To complicate matters, Somers is also being courted by the Socialist trade unionists, who are also looking for a good PR man (to effect "a partnership between poetry and power"). If watching an insecure intellectual waffle between extreme political ideologies is your idea of excitement, "Kangaroo" may be just the film for you.

But if your idea of excitement, intellectual or otherwise, is curling up with a D.H. Lawrence novel, you're bound to be disappointed here. With the exception of Ken Russell's "Women in Love" (richly textured and sensually vibrant) and Just Jaeckin's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (cheap and sexually literal), Lawrence's rich, evocative prose has proved generally unadaptable to the screen -- and "Kangaroo" proves no exception. Writer Evan Jones has distilled a complex book into a turgid, simplistic screenplay, and unless one has made oneself familiar with the events and passions of Lawrence's life, the resulting film will provoke one long yawn.

Those who look to Lawrence for social or sexual kinetics certainly are out of luck. The Somerses are as rigid, uptight and unromantic as the Calcotts are loose and sensuous. There are suggestions of sexual tensions and of wake-up calls to various libidos, but nothing much comes of them.

Friels, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Alan Bates in "Women in Love," musters none of Bates' internal passion. His brooding Somers -- a closet cultural anthropologist who writes down the Calcotts' mundane phrases in his journal, always listening without really hearing -- is the kind of person you'd sit down with once at the pub, but not twice.

Judy Davis (the real-life wife of Friels) appears to be having fun pulling a Meryl Streep, speaking in a stilted German accent and radiating unconvincing ennui, but for the most part she seems cast as audience insurance. Davis is at once beautiful and severe, and you wish this were a film about Harriet Somers' brilliant career, instead of her husband's.

Keays Byrne as the title character suggests a pudgy Terry-Thomas without the laughs. Only John Walton makes his character seem wide awake and worth knowing. The rest are such power-mad ideologues or distant intellectual boors that you don't care about their troubles.

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