THE STORY – A woman falls in love with a mysterious loner who’s haunted by a tragic accident from the past.
THE CAST – Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund & David Wenham
THE TEAM – Gregor Jordan (Director) & Jack Thorne (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
For decades, movie romances have been predicated on nothing more than two attractive people being in the same room. As ridiculous as it is, it’s a cinematic convention that we have all become attuned to, but mostly because those attractive people have enough chemistry to make us believe they’d fall in love despite whatever contrivances the script throws in our way. But when those attractive people don’t have chemistry, what happens then? You get something like Gregor Jordan’s “Dirt Music”.
The problem starts with the script. Jack Thorne’s screenplay, based on the novel by Tim Winton, leaves so much plot and character development unexplained that the actors have to do all the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Garrett Hedlund and Kelly Macdonald are simply not capable of doing that – not that they don’t have good performances. Macdonald paints an interesting portrait of a thorny woman desperate to escape from the comfortable life she was born into, and Hedlund taps into a well of deep feeling as a man barely recovering from tragedy. But neither of them fills the script’s many minutes of silence with anything interesting, and that’s where most of the character development is supposed to be happening. Combined with their total lack of chemistry, it renders many of the plot’s twists and turns utterly incomprehensible.
“Dirt Music” tells a relatively simple story. Macdonald’s Georgie is in an unexciting relationship with Jim (David Wenham), a wealthy crayfish baron in the backwater town of White Point. One morning while skinnydipping before sunrise, she comes across Hedlund’s Lu poaching from Jim’s pots. Soon thereafter they begin an affair, but Jim and Lu have a history that Georgie doesn’t know about, tied to the tragic deaths of Lu’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece. Eventually, Lu runs off to a chain of remote islands off the coast, and Georgie tries to find him. The problems with the telling of this simple story, however, are legion. Lu, in particular, doesn’t seem to like Georgie very much, especially at the beginning, so it’s a genuine surprise when they fall into bed with each other, and it’s even more of a surprise that they continue to see each other since there’s no spark between them. The script tries to tell us that this is a great romance, but the performances do nothing to support it. There’s only the flimsiest of reasons in the script for Lu to abandon everything and attempt to live on a remote island, and Hedlund acts the character’s journey as if he was going on a particularly long grocery run. Georgie’s family is introduced late in the film without any compelling reason, and Macdonald offers nothing but the straight antagonism provided in the script, yet this is presented as some sort of turning point for Georgie’s arc.
Frustratingly, “Dirt Music” is almost constantly beautiful to watch. Director of photography, Sam Chiplin, has been gifted with some of the most gorgeous vistas in the world as his setting, and he makes good use of them. The rich color palette of blues and reds (with occasional green and white) makes for some striking images even when the landscapes aren’t in view, but whenever the focus is on the natural beauty of the Western Australia coastline, the film practically explodes with beauty. It’s clear that the novel on which the film is based had something compelling and beautiful to say about nature and man’s connection to it, but director Gregor Jordan didn’t find a way to communicate it onscreen, much less turn the book’s poetic language into a story that makes sense. It’s a pity because the cinematic potential of this story is evident in every frame. Outside of Chiplin’s stunning cinematography, “Dirt Music” never comes anywhere close to reaching that potential. It’s a beautiful bore.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Gorgeous cinematography of some truly stunning landscapes in Western Australia.
THE BAD – The leads don’t have enough chemistry together to distract from the fact that nothing the characters do makes any sense.
THE OSCARS – None