THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH -- At the Avalon 1.
And now, the flip side of "My Brilliant Career" -- "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith."
Like Gill Armstrong's lyrical story of an aspiring writer, Fred Schepisi's film deals with societal pressures in turn-of-the-century Australia. But "Jimmie Blacksmith" focuses on another side of life, that of the native oppressed minority, the aborigines.
In the year 1900, Australia is about to become a federation -- a move that the half-caste Jimmie Blacksmith pretty much goes along with. He allows as much at work and his boss heartily agrees. "Sure, you'd still have the same rights -- none!" the man laughs.
He couldn't have put it more succinctly. Australian aborigines occupied a position equivalent to that of the Maoris in New Zealand or the American Indians. The original inhabitants of the country, they were ruthlessly exploited by whites. Most followed a course of obsequious servility to survive. Some cracked -- like the man named Jimmy Governor who killed seven whites in a Nat Turner-like rampage in 1900. This is the story upon which Schepisi's film is based.
"Jimmie Blacksmith" is a beautifully made movie that's hard to watch. The camera work is exquisite, but Schepisi doesn't flinch at recording scenes of great violence -- both the brutality that spawns Jimmie's rampage and the excruciatingly bloody killings themselves. A couple of hours of this sort of thing and you leave the theater reeling.
Jimmie is destined to come to a tragic end because he takes the Christian indoctrination he's received at the hands of a wellmeaning missionary all too seriously. As a boy, he's been singled out by the humorless Reverend Neville for special tutoring. Jimmie gets the work ethic down pat; when he plays the rules but finds time and again that they don't apply to him, his sense of moral outrage proves his undoing.
The sensual, heavy-lidded beauty of 19-year-old Tommy Lewis, who plays Jimmie, is in dramatic contrast to the washed-out whites who torment him throughout the film. (Of all the whites he encounters, only an asthmatic schoolteacher, played by Peter Carroll, displays any humanity at all.) Lewis -- who, we're told, was discovered by the movie's casting director in an airport lounge -- has a warm, eager-to-please style that endears Jimmie to us from the beginning.
Despite its subject matter, "Jimmie Blacksmith" is not without humor. Jimmie's wedding, with his wife's elaborately pregnant profile; a hostage-taking scene when a terrified couple scurry around their house at gunpoint (Wife, bustling: "You'll need a blanket, and your Wellingtons . . ." Husband, petulant: "It's too hard trekking about in Wellingtons!"); the closing moments of the film, when Jimmie stumbles half-dead into a convent, considerately choosing a cell labeled "guest room" to collapse in -- all are models of understated wit.
Additionally, there are many insights into turn-of-the-century Australian life (including the best natural childbirth scene in recent memory), and spectacular footage of the wild Australian countryside.
With all the inhumanity and violence it so graphically portrays, "Jimmie Blacksmith" is an upsetting film to watch; but the insights gained make it worth the pain.