AROUND THE BLOCK
American drama teacher Dino Chalmers (Christina Ricci) moves to Sydney's Redfern to be with her fiancé Simon (Daniel Henshaw) and is hired by the local school Principal O'Donnell (Jack Thompson) in what may be the school's final term. Dino's passion for Shakespeare drives her vision of producing a school play as part of the Indigenous cultural program, and finds that 16 year old Liam Wood (Hunter Page-Lochard) has a natural gift for performance. But there is a shadow over Liam's life, with his father (Matt Nable) in jail for a long stretch and his older brother Steve (Mark Coles Smith) determined to avenge the death of his uncle during the crime that put their father in jail. As Dino's relationship crumbles and she faces intimate choices, Liam also faces crucial choices about the direction of his life.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Around the Block may be a fitting title in that it refers to the infamous Block in Sydney's Redfern where indigenous lives criss-cross with urban Australia (and a neat allusion to the hero's journey), but the film could just as meaningfully be titled Hamlet in Redfern or Tupac The Shakespeare. Hamlet is the play that teacher Dino (Christina Ricci) chooses to present as the school play, and during rehearsals it is rap singer Tupac Shakur whose rhyming couplets are compared to Shakespeare's as observations of human nature.
These are crucial elements in this intelligent, layered and well structured screenplay by the multi-award winning Sarah Spillane, who demonstrates a natural cinematic sensibility. While there is nothing wildly original in the construct, the story and the characters ring true and are framed in a vibrant authenticity with which she is familiar, having lived in it for almost a decade. Some might say these characters are stereotypical but that would be to ignore the subtle filigree work written and performed into their profiles.
The moral dilemmas are clearly articulated and the journey of both teacher and pupil are well shaped to take them to their satisfactory destinations.
Hunter Page-Lochard has the depth and the stillness that marks him for international stardom should he desire it, delivering a complex and genuine character at a cross roads in his life. Playing his older brother Steve, Mark Coles Smith is no less impressive, and Ursula Yovich is wonderful as their mum Chrissie. Matt Nable has the tough role of playing the father, Jack, a hard man whose crime has smashed the family's life and he has to suffer that knowledge daily - in jail.
Outside the family, the cast is just as compelling: Christina Ricci makes Dino a complex figure with firm convictions and a decent heart - and the failure of her relationship with Simon (Daniel Henshall) leads to a total reassessment of her sexuality. This aspect is well developed in the screenplay as is the conversion of her teaching colleague Brent (Damian Walshe Howling) from skeptic to supporter.
Ruby Rose and Andrea Demetriades both play small but key roles with relish and style, while young Madelaine Madden is lovely as fellow student Williemai, with a crush on Liam.
There are no false notes here, and there is no whitewash, either (if you'll pardon the expression); it's a good story well told and beautifully performed, supported by a contempo soundtrack and seamless design. Australian cinema at its best.
Review by Louise Keller:
A school production of Hamlet is the catalyst that propels changes for both student and teacher in this potent Australian drama whose theme of Aboriginal culture canvasses revenge, stereotypes and father/son relationships. Sarah Spillane's assured film superbly depicts the wrong side of the tracks of the Redfern street culture, where kids are both at risk and rebellious. The story takes flight through its two protagonists, both of whose focus change directions during the film's journey. Like Shakespeare's character of Hamlet, both are confused and want to escape. Spillane has something to say and she knows how to say it - in a powerful way.
The story begins predictably but soon the film's differentiating features become evident. When Christina Ricci's English and Drama teacher Dino Chalmers first sees Liam Wood (Hunter Page-Lochard), rap dancing in the streets of Redfern, she notices him and instinctively captures him through the lens of her video camera. Economical storytelling provides a snapshot of Dino and Liam's lives, which allows us to springboard into the narrative.
Liam's home life is coloured by his absent jailed father (Matt Nable), whose life on the wrong side of the law is the guide book by which Liam's older brother Steve (Mark Coles Smith) lives. A ring on her left hand to indicate the presence of fiancé (Daniel Henshall) are the outward signs that bring Dina to Redfern, although we learn there is more to it - just as there is more to Dina. (This relationship is perhaps the least convincing element of the film.) By comparing the late American rapper Tupac Shakur with William Shakespeare, being poets and social commentators of the day, Dina Chalmers breaks through barriers with Aboriginal and Islander students for her ambitious production of Hamlet. The parallel themes of revenge and father son relationships mirror each other as rehearsals for Hamlet take place at the same time as Steve's violent mission to avenge his father.
The diminutive Ricci is impressive in the role, the contrast of her softly spoken manner and tiny frame emphasising the roughness of her surroundings. Just like the character of Dina, there is more to Ricci than meets the eye. Lochard brings inner conflict to Liam, offering just the right balance to show his determination to be the person he wants to be. Jack Thompson's role as the school headmaster may be small, but it is important, and Thompson adds gravitas by blending seamlessly into the background. All the cast is excellent with special mention to Matt Nable, whose minimalist performance as Liam's criminal father is outstanding, providing the film's emotional highlight.
The ambiance of the Redfern subculture is enhanced by Nick Wales' score and Martin McGrath's cinematography capturing the graffiti and mural-covered walls. Spillane meanwhile, firmly steers the tone and the emotions in the right direction. The Aboriginal presence as part of the multi-cultural mix is especially pertinent to everyday Australian life, with issues of violence and rebellion being addressed in a positive way. This is a uniquely Australian film whose broad multi-cultural implications ring true, offering a story that will resonate with the community at large.
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AROUND THE BLOCK (M)
CAST: Christina Ricci, Hunter Page-Lochard, Mark Coles Smith, Jack Thompson, Damian Walshe-Howling, Daniel Henshaw, Matt Nable, Ursula Yovich, Madeleine Madden, Andrea Demetriades, Anthony Gee
PRODUCER: Brian Rosen, Su Armstrong
DIRECTOR: Sarah Spillane
SCRIPT: Sarah Spillane
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Martin McGrath
EDITOR: Veronika Jenet
MUSIC: Nick Wales
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Paul Finch
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney/Greenlight Releasing
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney: Orpheum: June 16; Randwick Ritz June 23, 2014
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Pinnacle Films
DVD RELEASE: July 16, 2014