BENEATH HILL 60
Based on the true story of mining engineer Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), who in 1916 has to leave his new young love Marjorie (Bella Heathcote) to join the Australian 1st Tunnellers in the mud and carnage of the Western Front in World War I. Deep beneath the German lines, Woodward and his platoon of secret Australian tunnellers struggle to maintain and extend a leaking, labyrinthine tunnel system packed with enough high explosives to cause the largest explosion the world has ever known, in an attempt to destroy thousands of German troops massed above ground.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, Beneath Hill 60 is a gripping and involving film about a chapter in Australian war history that is hardly known or celebrated at large. David Roach has written a wonderful screenplay to tell the story through the key characters, including those left at home. Thanks to director Jeremy Sims and a superb cast, it's an often moving portrait of the dreadful trenches, the easy camaraderie and the simple heroism of the men.
The central character is Oliver Woodward, portrayed by Brendan Cowell as a no nonsense man with skills that make him valuable at the front. But being older, he's not called up until sometime later, which fuels rumours that he's a coward, perhaps the lowest form of life in time of war. This, and his interrupted romance with the lovely Marjorie (Bella Heathcote), give the film added layers.
Cowell is the lead character, but it's an ensemble piece, with excellent performances from all, ranging from the grisly old Colonel Wilson Rutledge (Chris Haywood) to the young Frank Tiffin (Harrison Gilbertson) and the edgy Sargeant Bill Fraser (Steve Le Marquand) and Norman Morris (Gyton Grantley). Anthony Hayes also shines as Capt William McBride, Woodward's mainstay, demonstrating his maturity as an actor.
There are just a couple of elements that could have been better handled: the detail about the tactical value of the big explosion might have been explained more carefully. This is the core of the story and needs to be fully understood. Better to slow the pace and make sure we know the details. Similarly, we want to see at least some of the impact of the big bang on the German troops - not just the earth heaving.
But the film boasts superb production values, managing to recreate the rain drenched, mud-filled trenches of Europe (all around Townsville!), conditions that drain a man's spirit, even before the bullets and the shells drain his life. Adding to the film's sense of scale is Cezary Skubiszewski's rich, textured and sensitive score and brilliant work from cinematographer Toby Oliver. In all, a film to be proud of for all the right reasons.
Review by Louise Keller:
What a wonderful story about Australian miners recruited to use their skills tunnelling underground beneath the enemy in World War I. Filmmaker Jeremy Sims follows his excellent directorial 2006 debut Last Train to Freo with an engrossing true story set on and beneath the mud flats of France and Belgium in 1916. It's a war story, a story about heroism and a human drama in which the characters have impossible decisions to make. There is also a romance involving Brendan Cowell's protagonist Captain Oliver Woodward and his 16 year old sweetheart waiting for him at home.
Screenwriter David Roach has structured his deft screenplay so that the bulk of the action takes place in the mineshafts and on the battle front. We flit backwards and forwards in time as we learn about the circumstances that brings Cowell's demolition expert Captain Woodward to the front and the sweetly innocent relationship he leaves behind. The script also offers other stirring snapshots of soldiers and their relationships: the father who enlists in order to make sure his son safely returns home and the 16 year old novice soldier Frank Tiffin (Harrison Gilbertson) who is so scared, he thinks the pounding of his heart is the enemy approaching.
Shot entirely in Townsville to represent France, we get a great sense of being there. There's the canary in its underground cage ready to alert us of bad air, the candles whose flames shrink from lack of oxygen and the rats that run rampant in the mines. There's incessant rain and grey skies, the tortuous conditions and the unpredictability of what is ahead. Plus there is heartbreak, death, heroism and the consequence of decisions in the most angst ridden of circumstances. There are a few misjudgments, like incomprehensible dialogue in a key scene and the second act drags a little before it hots up for the climactic finish.
Cowell is terrific as the likeable Captain Woodward through whose eyes we embark on the journey Beneath Hill 60. We get a real sense of camaraderie between the soldiers with humour sprinkled here and there, amply depicting the Aussie spirit. The entire cast contributes to this and special mention goes to Harrison Gilbertson as young Tiffin and Bella Heathcote as Marjorie Waddell, the spirited young woman who wins Woodward's heart. A string of excellent Australian actors deliver stylishly, including Steve Le Marquand, Gyton Grantley, Anthony Hayes, John Stanton and Chris Haywood as the gruff Colonel who fails to understand things should not always play by the book. I like the way the enemy has a human face as we meet the Germans, who, like the Australians, are also trying to decipher where and what the enemy is doing. After all, war is not a one-sided affair.
It's a fascinating story with key dramatic elements, providing good entertainment and an insight into an important time in our history that deserves to be told. Production elements are excellent, as is Cezary Skubiszewski's enigmatic and haunting score.
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BEHIND THE SCENES
Jeremy Hartley Sims
BENEATH HILL 60 (M)
CAST: Brendan Cowell, Mark Coles Smith, Alan Dukes, Leon Ford, Bob Franklin, Harrison Gilbertson, Gyton Grantley, Anthony Hayes, Chris Haywood, Bella Heathcote, Steve Le Marquand, Gerald Lepkowski, Jacqueline McKenzie, John Stanton, Martin Thomas, Alex Thompson, Aden Young, Duncan Young, Warwick Young
PRODUCER: Bill Leimbach
DIRECTOR: Jeremy Sims
SCRIPT: David Roach
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Toby Oliver
EDITOR: Dany Cooper
MUSIC: Cezary Skubiszewski
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Clayton Jauncey
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 15, 2010