Blueback Review – Perth Lotterywest Film Festival

Widower Dora raises her daughter Abby in the remote fictional beachside town of Longboat Bay, teaching her to respect the ocean with responsible and sustainable fishing while also educating her about the thriving ecosystem under the water. Their humble abode sits atop dunes with a pristine view of the Southern Ocean, and as such gains the attention of developer Costello who wants to buy the property and monopolise on the views. As the threat to transform the quiet town into an industrial area causes protests to erupt on the pristine beaches, Abby discovers an underwater friend in the shape of a large blue groper she calls Blueback.

Robert Connolly’s family-friendly drama Blueback takes Tim Winton’s familiar short story and transforms it into a powerful ode to mothers and mother nature, albeit one that’s hampered by a decidedly serious tone that is dictated by its eco-activism message that comes saddled with a doom-laden reality. Blueback is both inspirational and hopeful, all the while quietly acknowledging that we’ve lost in the bid to implement actions to halt the devastating impact of the climate crisis we live in.

“Take a good close look at what we’re fighting for,” is the message that Mia Wasikowska’s older Abby utters as she looks at the area she grew up in as she returns to tend to her ailing mother, played by Liz Alexander. It’s a message that lingers through Winton’s work, almost to the point of becoming a trope. After all, Winton’s texts predominantly tell stories of living on the coastal waters of Western Australia and the drama that comes with trying to protect these regions. For Connolly, there’s a view that presenting this pristine landscape on screen could help build awareness of what we aim to lose, working as its own form of cinematic activism.

As Blueback flits between the past and the present, with Radha Mitchell playing a sun kissed, youthful version of Dora raising Abby (Ariel Donoghue confidently plays a young Abby, with Ilsa Fogg impressing as a teen Abby), the cynical side of me couldn’t help but emerge as I endured yet another dramatic tale that extolled the importance of community action to work together to save the environment we live with. I don’t begrudge filmmakers like Connolly and storytellers like Winton for wanting to tell these kinds of stories, after all, they’re using their creativity to voice their anger and frustration with the world we live in, but at some point it does almost become a chore to sit through yet another parable for the plight of our planet.

Mitchell’s Dora is a proud mother, imbuing Abby with as much information and world experience as she can so that she too can help save the planet and the marine environment they live within. The thematic strains of Blueback are pulled in different directions here, with the environmental focus almost overwhelming the mother and daughter relationship that often soars with honesty and earnest positivity. It’s a rare sight to see a bond like this on screen, and Connolly triumphantly gives Mitchell and Fogg the space to build and foster a genuine tenderness between one another.

While Blueback struggles with padding out Winton’s short into an effective feature length, it also has one too many subplots, with the developer thread carrying a pointedly cartoonish tone, and equally so, as good as Eric Bana is as a shaggy, uber-ocker fisherman, his role barely warrants a mention here.

Blueback manages to effectively pull on the heartstrings thanks to the central performances and the stunning puppetry work from the team at Creature Technology Co. who helped bring the groper to life. From the puppeteers who worked on the shoot (Jacob Williams, Rob McNaught, Andrew Thilby, Jacob Kyriakidis) to the designers and creators who designed the fish (Paul Smits, Sonny Tilders, Andrew Thilby, Rob McNaught, Jen O’Keeffe, Torie Nimmervoll, Jacob Kyriakidis, amongst others), the energy that comes with a creative community elevates the respect for nature and the creatures that call it home in a tender and powerful manner. To know that a dedicated team worked together to ensure that Blueback became an empathetic character shows a level of dedication and care that the film is elevated by.

Additionally, Nigel Westlake’s masterful score hits hard from the get-go and doesn’t let up, providing the sonic resonance that the narrative craves. Cinematography from Andrew Commis and Rick Rifici beautifully brings the Bremer Bay region to life with immersive and tender shots of Western Australian scenery.

It’s the importance of the scenery that lingers in my mind the most after I watched Blueback, alongside the words of Erik Thomson’s cartoonish villainous Costello who mentions in passing to Abby that it’s the will of the government that matters, and no matter the political party, the allure of money and ‘growth’ is something that precious few governments can deny. As such, the government that helped spruik the film at the opening night of the Perth Lotterywest Film Festival is the same government that stands by a decision to allow mining company Woodside to open up the Scarborough gas field for mining. While Winton and Connolly are well-meaning in their narrative intentions, it’s clear that these stories are doing little to sway the decisions or views of the people who actually hold power to make change. We’re beyond the point of decision makers being scared into action.

That’s something I’m pained to write, because I want nothing more than for viewers to be moved and spurred into action by a film that is as gentle and tender as Blueback often is. I’ve been mostly negative in this review, but it’s only because of my frustration with the world that we live in, that no matter how often we yell and scream and push forward heartwarming stories about humanity building relationships with nature, it will never be enough to genuinely instigate change. We’re long past the era of Ronald Reagan being moved into action by The Day After to change his stance about nuclear weapons, so films about our climate emergency fail to land a blow, all the while the real life ‘once in a lifetime’ destruction events that occur on a monthly basis in Australia equally fail to conjure monumental change in our world.

This isn’t a fault of Blueback at all, but rather the stark reality of the world that this film finds itself in. Unfortunately, the wide eyed optimism that thrives within the film that the imagery of our oceans would be enough to implement change is one that has failed to find fertile ground to flourish in Australia. We live in one of the most beautiful, pristine, glorious places on earth, yet blast it to hell for off-shore profits.

While this review skews towards the negative, there is a lot to love about Blueback, with the film playing somewhere between the crippling devastation of Storm Boy and the hopeful wonder of Babe. I was frequently moved to tears by its brilliance, left on the edge of my seat with its predictable climactic moments, and stunned by the performances. This is the first time we’re seeing Ilsa Fogg on screen, and given how powerfully she holds herself against Mitchell, Bana, Thomson and co, I can guarantee this will not be the last.

Frustratingly, Blueback’s ending is abrupt and rushed, moving quickly through emotional beats that should emotionally wreck you, before closing on a memorable image that will linger in your mind. I yearned for the story to solely focus on the bond between Abby and Blueback, a friendship that defies the realms that they both live within. It’s in these moments that the film moved me to tears, enriching me with the hope of the world and the joy that can come from the most unexpected places. There is genuine beauty within Blueback, and a lot of it comes from the lengths that Connolly goes to to make us genuinely care and empathise with a fish. This is not Dory or Nemo, but a groper. It aims to instil a hope in viewers that asks if we can be moved by and empathise with a creature that is often wrapped up alongside a greasy bunch of chips, that surely we can be better people and look after this world.

Director: Robert Connolly

Cast: Ilsa Fogg, Radha Mitchell, Mia Wasikowska

Writer: Robert Connolly, with additional writing by Tim Winton (based on the short story Blueback by Tim Winton)

This review has been updated to reflect the names of the creative team at Creature Technology Co.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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