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In Black And White, director Craig Lahiff brings to the screen a murder case that is far from black and white – although it does tackle the scandalous racism of Australian society in the late 50s, and has caught the attention of at least one of today’s senior justices, Justice Michael Kirby.

Craig Lahiff is sitting in the small but smart foyer of Kirketon Hotel in Sydney’s Kings Cross, waiting for me, looking for all the world like a lawyer on the weekend, his briefcase and notepapers on his lap, shirt unbuttoned. Indeed, Lahiff could almost pass for David O’Sullivan, the determined battler lawyer in South Australia who helped make Australian legal history over 40 years ago, but for his prematurely white hair. 

The benign look on Lahiff’s face and his quiet manner do not attract attention: no one milling around or passing him in the street would imagine he had just directed Black and White, a film that opens up some nasty scabs of Australia’s judicial system and demands to be seen. No less a figure the Justice Michael Kirby has called for every judicial officer to see the film, during an address in July 2002 to the Local Court of NSW Annual Conference. (Justice Kirby had seen the film at the opening of this year’s Sydney Film Festival.)

“I had hoped it would have an impact,” Lahiff says without undue emphasis, as we start talking about the film in which Robert Carlyle plays O’Sullivan, David Ngoombujarra plays Max Stuart, accused of the rape and murder of a young girl in a cave on Ceduna beach – and Ben Mendelsohn plays the young Rupert Murdoch, then editor of Adelaide’s The News, whose crusading coverage gave the case a much needed public shove. More on that later.

"the dangers of formalism and blindness to prejudice"

“[The film] is a reminder to us of the dangers of formalism and blindness to prejudice,” Justice Kirby told the legal conference delegates, “that can be inherent in our work unless we are on guard. Although there have been great improvements in the courts of our country since the proceedings portrayed in Black and White, we the judicial officers of Australia today should watch the film to reinforce our commitment to the avoidance of errors of the kind that the film chronicles.”

The story is well documented and the film follows the paper tracks. Max Stuart, An Aboriginal of the Arunta tribe who had arrived in the area the day before, signs a confession under duress, after claiming to be innocent of the crime. Local Irish migrant lawyer David O’Sullivan (Carlyle) and partner Helen Devaney (Kerry Fox) are assigned to the hopeless case as legal aid defence lawyers. Prosecutor Roderic Chamberlain (Charles Dance) believes the police version of the story, but O’Sullivan drags the case all the way to the Privy Council in England. 

“Stuart went to the gallows seven times and had seven reprieves . . . it is a strong story,” says Lahiff with some understatement. “The case divided South Australian society and provides a an insight into the racism and the justice system of the time….all because of one man.”

Well, it was probably more because of three men: Max Stuart as the unwilling central character, David O’Reilly as the unwilling legal aid defender with his ‘Irish up’, and Rupert Murdoch, whose newspaper made sure the case was the centre of public attention. But Lahiff had serious reservations about the subject matter, for all its impact – and it did have a long term impact, both on the justice system and on society.

“I was a bit worried about it because it was such a horrific crime it might skew the view audiences might take. Stuart was convicted and he did serve time for the crime…. So we didn’t want to make it a simplistic story of an innocent man unjustly punished. There is ambiguity in the approach. It’s more about the system and society.”

Unavoidably, the film has several court room scenes, and court room scenes are scenes writer Louis Nowra dislikes intensely. “I had to prod him quite a bit,” laughs Lahiff. But there are many scenes outside court, including some in the police cells, where Stuart is persuaded to sign a confession. Lahiff says when Max Stuart first saw the finished film, he was amazed at these scenes, saying they portrayed exactly what had happened. However, the actual detective involved, Paul Turner (now deceased), when discussing the case with Lahiff during research three years ago, implied that no violence or threats of violence were made. “He was very helpful and he felt pretty good about the whole case…he had the whole Adelaide establishment behind him. He implied the confession was ‘laughed out Stuart’…”

(The ageing Stuart was on hand for a special Adelaide premiere of the film on October 24, 2002.)

But the film makes a point of using the evidence presented to suggest that not all was right with the confession, apart from the violence. Things like the words and language used, which did not match Stuart’s standard usage of English. The danger that Justice Kirby refers to is the risk of hanging an innocent man, when even a reasonable doubt exists about his guilt. Complicated by the arrogance of evident racism in Adelaide at the time, it is a powderkeg subject.

After his last film in 1997, Heaven’s Burning starring Russell Crowe, Lahiff says he wanted to do something very different. “A real life story with serious issues appealed to me, and Helen Leake (producer) suggested the Stuart case.”

When casting around for the right actors, Lahiff says the filmmakers made an early decision that “as O’Reilly came up against the Adelaide establishment, which prided itself on being more English than the English, we chose [Englishman] Charles Dance … although we did actually try and cast it first entirely in Australia, but with financing and availabilities, it didn’t work out.”

And as for the role of young Rupert Murdoch, Lahiff referred to photos of the period and spent much time looking “for someone who had the stature to do what he did and to go on and build an empire. “It was Louis Nowra who suggested Ben Mendelsohn . . . and I thought it was interesting to get him to play a role that’s so different to anything he’d usually play.”

"the best film experience"

Overall, it turned out to be “the best film experience” he has says Lahiff. “There wasn’t one irritable comment on set, despite the fact that Kerry Fox like rehearsal and to do lots of takes, but Robert Carlyle doesn’t! They’d known each other before and got on really well.”

Published October 31, 2002

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Craig Lahiff


Onset with Ben Mendelsohn

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