"Pretentious" seems a popular word amongst reviewers of this thought-provoking film. HOW I wonder would "they" have made it, given the opportunity? I am saved from further contemplation along these lines by the fact that Peter Weir made it.....and rather well, I hasten to add.
A worthy successor to PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK in as much as the viewer is left with his or her own interpretation of what they have just seen. Events occuring in an everyday environment but where the line between fantasy and reality is so blurred, no lens can be found to bring up a sharp focus. It is a disturbing film which highlights and pays homage to the Aboriginal dreamtime.
Chamberlain, in one of his best roles (made even better when you reminisce about the celluloid embarrassments BELLS, KING SOLOMON'S MINES and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) plays a hot-shot Australian attorney (complete with DR KILDARE accent) who is called upon to defend a small group of Tribal Aborigines on what appears to be an "open and shut case" murder charge. Initially he finds his clients anything but co-operative and seemingly disinterested by the threat of the white man's legal system. Aspects of the case begin to disturb him and he is drawn into a world of ancient beliefs, symbolic half-lives, a very dimension that causes him to question his own comfortable existence and purpose. Central to his dreams is one of the Defendants (brilliantly played by Australian actor David Gulpilil) who appears existentially, perhaps a disembodied spirit (?), holding out to him a sacred stone with ancient cabalistic markings. He learns that the aboriginal man who was killed was the victim of tribal law and that he must not, cannot, intervene.
The nightmare spills over into real-time...black rain, (we have already witnessed hailstones crashing into a tiny outback school from cloudless skies!) water prophetically leaking through his roof and cascading down the stairs. Visions of a great flood. He becomes obssessed with seeking the truth, not only of what is going on around him, but who he is? The scene where he confronts the Head Tribal Elder in his inner city squat is totally chilling. The viewer's own close and comfortable existence is challenged and put up for re-evaluation here.
Eventually and too late of course, he stumbles across the truth. But IS it? Has he been played for a fool? Has the audience? Much was made at the time of the film's release, that the final scenes were a total cop-out. I even thought as much myself at the opening night. Amazing what a almost a quarter of a century's personal development and insight can do for you. Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, this film needs to be seen at different stages of your life to appreciate what Peter Weir knew and was trying to say in 1977.