For a long while now, Australian comedies have been regularly considered our weakest of film genres. Sure, everybody loves The Castle, a couple of lines from Crocodile Dundee are oft-quoted and Muriel’s Wedding is regularly misremembered as being a laugh a minute film, but surely we’ve got more than just a small handful of funny films? Well, it’s about time that the uproariously funny and enjoyable Death in Brunswick got a revival.
Starring Sam Neill (three years before he was in a certain dinosaur film) and Zoe Carides, Death in Brunswick is the story of Carl (Neill) and his search for love, a new job, a better life, but on this journey he’s tripped up by an accidental death and the trouble that comes along with it. Waking up in his run down house in Brunswick, just out of Melbourne, Carl finds his mother kneeling down, head firmly in the stove. This is also the films first major laugh as thanks to Neill’s simply superb performance here, he manages to display shock and hope at the same time that maybe, just maybe, his mother has decided to off herself with his kitchen stove. However, Carl’s mother has not decided to end her life and be the death in Brunswick, instead she’s just giving it a clean.
Within the first few moments of Death in Brunswick we get a great understanding of who Carl is as a character. Through the simply superb set design, we see that Carl is a man who has ideas about who he wants to be, but has simply failed at achieving them. The stack of books next to his bed, a forgotten guitar next to an unfinished painting – all subtly build a character before we’ve even heard a line of dialogue. With the unexpected appearance of his mother (Yvonne Lawley), we’re shown that Carl has seemingly never been out of earshot of her ever-complaining diatribe. It’s here that we get our first exposure of the great dialogue by director John Ruane and co-writer Boyd Oxlade which provides some truly brilliant pearlers as the story progresses.
Before discussing the plot and great dialogue further it’s well worth touching on the immediate multicultural presentation of Australia. One of the great elements of Death in Brunswick is how effortlessly it showcases what could be considered ‘real Australia’. Whether Brunswick itself is as multicultural as the film represents is besides the point, as it displays an Australia that is all too familiar to any Australian. Halal butcher shops sit comfortably without trouble next to bottleshops proudly displaying the sign of Australian beer – Fosters.
Adding to the multicultural aspect are the wonderful group of supporting characters led by the simply luminescent Sophie (Zoe Carides), and backed up by Carl’s co-worker Mustafa (Nick Lathouris), beefcake bouncer Laurie (Boris Brkic) and club owner Tony (Steve Hutchison). All create great, believable characters who help paint this believable world where two unlikely people fall in love. This romance between Carl and Sophie is the core element of Death in Brunswick and it works so well simply because of the performances of Sam Neill and Zoe Carides. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Carl is quite a bit older than Sophie, so it’s a huge credit to both Neill and Carides that the relationship between Carl and Sophie works – and fortunately, the film addresses this age difference and uses it to further build Carl as a character.
The on screen chemistry is tangible – a journey to a movie has the two kiss for the first time and you can simply feel the passion dripping off the screen; even if the movie theatre is filled to the brim with kids. (This is one of the films best moments as well as the cinema full of kids are presented with the Australian horror schlock-fest that is The Marsupials: Howling III.) Thanks to this great chemistry, it’s easy to understand why Carl would go to the lengths he does for Sophie in the second and third acts. He’s finally found somebody that makes his life worthwhile and he’s not afraid of fighting for that love.
Neill manages to perfectly portray Carl as a man who knows he’s simply too old and has achieved too little with his life. He wears his leather jacket as a wannabe macho affectation, and exhibits his Ray Bans with great pride. Carl has a weathered history that Neill manages to display with ease, making some third act revelations extremely believable. On the opening of the film, we find him as a man whose luck is finally coming round – he’s got an ok job, an attractive girl is into him, things are looking up – but for the life of him, he still can’t throw a dart properly. Which is the perfect analogy for his life – when things are going right, Carl is still just unable to fully seal the deal. There’s a subtle running theme regarding Carl’s over reliance on alcohol which furthers the “everyday Australian man” character that he is.
Fortunately, he’s backed up by his trusty long time friend Dave (John Clarke) who manages to help him out of a difficult situation – and has previously done many times over. Clarke’s Dave is a character that’s so perfectly realised (especially when paired with Dave’s wife June – portrayed by the always great Deborah Kennedy) and such a joy to watch, that it’s once again a testament to Neill’s performance that Clarke doesn’t manage to steal the film from beneath him. Clarke is best known (now at least) for his long running Clarke & Dawe TV series, so seeing him portray such a true blue Aussie larrikin is a joy.
All of these characters wouldn’t be enough if the script wasn’t up to scratch – and there’s no doubt it is. Based on Boyd Oxlade’s book, director John Ruane and Boyd Oxlade’s script is full of rich dialogue that helps build the simply dark and hilarious narrative that makes up Death in Brunswick. Truly wonderful lines of dialogue roll along every minute, such as this exchange between Carl and Sophie after they’ve had sex for the first time:
Sophie: Dad thinks I’m a slut.
Carl: But Soph, this is Australia.
Often the ‘ocker’ traits of Australian colloquialism can sound on the nose, but here it’s naturalistic and a perfect representation of Australians way of talking. Carl’s mother especially captures the older English phrases wonderfully, like when she hears of Carl’s girlfriend and responds that she sounds ‘exceedingly common’.
Finally, it would be remiss to not mention the great score by Split Enz member Phil Judd. While the story and comedy leans more towards dark comedy than straight comedy, Judd’s score manages to capture an essence of whimsy that matches Carl’s aging naivety perfectly.
There is a lot going on within the heart of Death in Brunswick, but at its core it’s a simple story of love that manages to get interrupted by an unexpected death. It’s a familiar tale, and one that’s been done to death, but with great central performances by Neill, Carides and Clarke, it’s elevated above being a simple tale of ‘wrong place, wrong time’. Above all else, Death in Brunswick is truly hilarious that is equally affecting thanks to its believable characters and is a film that is in need of being considered one of Australia’s great comedies.
Director: John Ruane
Cast: Sam Neill, Zoe Carides, John Clarke
Writers: John Ruane, Boyd Oxlade