The new Australian movie "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" arrives today at the Avalon 1 exalted by critical superlatives that could be misleading. The film isn't so much a stately cinematic mansion as a rugged, fascinating, haunted house, designed to recall the destructive side of Austrialia's emergence as a modern natin at the turn of the century.
The film derives from such a powerful literary source -- Thomas Keneally's 1972 novel -- that it remains a compeling experience even if you feel that the workmanship of screenwriter-director Fred Schepisi leaves a number of amenities and finishing touches to be desired.
The chronicle of a half-caste who is repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to become socially acceptable to white ranchers, "Jimmie Blacksmith" turns into a boomerang success story, a Haratio Alger myth gone wrong: The once-aspiring young hero deteriorates into a bloodthirsty desperado.
The film never suffers from a lack of significant content, and it packs an emotional wallop that goes on reverbating. Nevertheless, one seems to keep tripping over loose floorboards of abrupt, unrealized scenes or ducking cobwebs of awkward, fuzzy transitions. Some episodes appear raggedly cut and barely integrated, beginning with the opening scenes which depict the title character at age 13, undergoing a secret tribal initiation, and then locate him among the aborigine shantytown dwellers near a Methodist mission, where the minister and his wife (Jack Thompson and Julie Dawson) take a solicitous interest in the boy.
It's possible that connective material dissappeared when Schepisi (pronounced skep-see) trimmed the movie by a quarter-hour after its showing at the 1978 Cannes festival. Other little details may get lost in the underbrush of Australian dialects before one adjusts to them.
Nonetheless, the portrayal of Jimmie never seems adequate to the rage that overtakes and destroys him. A 19-year-old non-professional was cast in the role, a student named Tommie Lewis, whose robust, handsome features and winning smile suffice for the early, ingratiating Jimmie. A more experienced and accomplished performer is necessary to do justice to the resentment that smolders and then explodes with brutal impact at the climax, when Jimmie takes an axe to women and children.
Jimmie's surging emotions call for actors who could flare up as impressively as, say, Paul Newman and Sidney Poiteir in their first important roles. In fact, "Jimmie Blacksmith" has several things in common with Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun," in which Newman played Billy the kid as an ignorant, illiterate Western waif whose criminality fed on distorted ideas of social status and loyalty.
Jimmie's unwitting accomplices, his besotted uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodds) and happy-go-lucky half-brother Mort (beautifully embodied by Freddy Reynolds), recall Billy's sidekicks and Gene Hackman's Buck Barrow in "Bonnie & Clyde." They're all outlaw "family," drawn into murder out of loyalty. They're also representatives of a deprived, volatile sub-class struggling to get by in harsh frontier or rural settings. It's not surprising that Schepisi's upcomong third film, his first American production, "Barbarosa," will be a Western. He has the right affinities.
Literate and ambitious, Jimmie is unofficially adopted by the well-meaning Nevilles and led to believe that hard work and good behavior will be materially and emotionally rewarding. Determined to avoid the degeneracy that has corrupted aborigine elders like his Uncle Tabidgi, Jimmie tries to make himself useful and agreeable to the ruling class. He gets shortchanged and snubbed for his pains.
Alienated from the declining and ascending cultures, Jimmie begins to despise himself. His marriage to a desperate, pregnant white girl, Gilda, an orphaned housemaid played by Angela Punch, leads to further humiliation: Their child turns out to be all white, obviously engendered by a premarital lover other than Jimmie and making a mockery of Mrs. Nevill's promise that if he married a hard-working farm girl, in two generations the children would look "scarcely black at all."
Jimmie and Gilda, barely acquainted and embodying mutually deluded dreams of social improvement, are a peculiarly vulnerable couple. Their condition is emphasized by the one-room shack Jimmie builds for them on the land of the rancher he's working for: A lonelier or littler house on the prairie is inconceivable.
The rancher's womenfolk try to pressure Gilda into leaving Jimmie. At the same time, the rancher uses a visit by Tabidgi and Mort as an excuse to order Jimmie off the property. When the dispute comes to a head, Jimmie's craving for bloody retribution is perversly deflected. He assaults not the rancher but his wife, his daughters and a boarder, Miss Graf, a schoolmarm who has made herself conspicuously nosy and condescending.
Taking flight, Jimmie conceals the gender of the victims from loyal, good-natured Mort. When they become apparent in subsequent acts of murder, it is Mort who eloquently states the case for a fundamental sense of shame and morality.
The similarities between the colonial haunted houses of America and Australia, where European immigrants prospered in part by overwhelming native civilizations and exploiting their labor, make the larger meanings and implications of "Jimmie Blacksmith" difficult to ignore.
Based on an authentic episode that occurred in 1900, Keneally's novel is a compact, sardonic national of Australian political federation. Keneally, who appears briefly as the lecherous cook who has probably impregnated Gilda, doesn't waste any false sentiment on the characters. Quick to detect and rudicule national forms of sanctimoniousness, he perceives the bush country gentry as a miserly, hypocritical lot, too tightfisted and suspicious to act generously with Jimmie even when generosity would be in their best interests.
At the same time, Keneally never promotes the aborigines to sainthood. Jimmie's naive acceptance of the Nevilles' pretensions makes him a somewhat satirical figure, a bloody fool in the tradition of Candide and Lemuel Pitkin. And it's clear that Jimmie has gone beyond acceptable limits for victim of injustice. Jimmie himself recognizes the fact in the light of Mort's horrified reaction.
Schepisi has yet to master a cinematic form of expression as lucid and affecting as Keneally's prose, which retains an astringent social vision even during poignant interludes. Although Schepisi is now 41, "Jimmie Blacksmith" is only his second feature. It took him several years to organize and complete both projects. "Jimmie Blacksmith" cost about $1.2 million, an unprecedented sum for an Australian production, and Schepisi, who served a long apprenticeship in commercial and government documentaries, put up about 30 percent of the investment himself.
While Schepisi isn't deft enough to keep the pressure in the story rising steadily or thorough enough to orchestrate all the details, nuances and random episodes, he keeps faith with Keneally's broad outline. Moreover, he reveals a flair for historical settings, characterization, the depiction of violence and expansive narrative that augurs well for the future. This transplanted Australian may help rehabilitate the American Western.