He made sure The King’s Speech waltzed off with four Oscars last year, then went
one better this year with The Artist. Long before all that, he had been a leading light
in his own country’s cinematic renaissance in the late 1980s, with the indie
powerhouse brand Miramax. Now, film chief Harvey Weinstein has taken a shine to
Weinstein has gleefully snapped up The Sapphires – Australia’s officially selected
entry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which premiered late Saturday night – for
US and overseas distribution. In doing so, he has added to the significant buzz
Australia is enjoying at the world’s most prestigious film festival.
The success at Cannes of the fact-based musical biopic – about an indigenous, all-girl
singing troupe from an Aboriginal mission in Victoria, groomed to sing for troops in
Vietnam in 1968 – follows a sea of chatter that’s gathering steam for returning star
Nicole Kidman. She is back starring in both Lee “Precious” Daniels’ The
Paperboy (as a white-trash lover of an inmate on death row) and Philip
Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn (as the latter, a war journalist).
Another Kidman vehicle – Rowan Joffe’s upcoming Before I Go To Sleep – is also
being shopped to buyers in the marketplace, while Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska,
Jason Clarke and Noah Taylor feature heavily in John Hillcoat’s Lawless. Even Kylie
Minogue is here (in Holy Motors). This year at Cannes, Aussies are everywhere.
One Australian making a more modest comeback is Isla Fisher (aka Mrs Sacha Baron
Cohen). After almost five years away, spent raising a family, the former Home and
Away star speaks candidly to Unwind from inside the seaside locale’s uber-swish
Carlton hotel, while down below her husband steps out one last time to help keep The
Dictator in the headlines.
“I don’t give interviews unless I really have to,” she says. “I like to keep myself to
myself. I’m sure [Cohen] is tweeting right now, from the back of a camel! But I’m
Fisher’s low-key presence here – to help publicise an upcoming animated
DreamWorks picture, Rise of the Guardians (which also features the voice of Hugh
Jackman) – reflects an underlying feeling shared by many stars on the Croisette this
year. Notably, the festival’s good-natured opener, Wes Anderson’s kooky fantasy
romp Moonrise Kingdom, features Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton, who
both confess to Unwind about feeling nonplussed by the “red carpet” duties they
perform. Cannes, they insist, is all about the works of directors, particularly those
who command an ensemble cast of world-class pedigree.
For Australia, The Sapphires (which will also open this year’s Melbourne
International Film Festival, in August) promises to make stars of the film’s director,
Wayne Blair, and his leading ladies Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman (who also
stars in the upcoming telemovie Mabo, about the historic 1992 land rights decision
for Australia’s indigenous people). Mailman admits to feeling cautiously excited
about the fuss and bother a global event such as Cannes creates, even if the hoopla
cools over time. The message the film brings, she says, remains vital.
“I feel there is a responsibility we are taking with this film. We’re putting Aboriginal
culture on the world stage. People who don’t know about Aboriginal culture will be
asking us questions. We will be telling people who we are as a culture, what our
stories are about, what our films are about. It’s a big responsibility – people will get
to know who we are.”
Mailman, like her director (who starred in the original 2004 stage play), is all too
aware of the potential aftershocks a breakout film can create. Blair’s Sundance
counterpart, Kieran Darcy-Smith, scored a co-production deal with the US after his
debut, Wish You Were Here, premiered at a major international film festival. Blair
may be relatively cautious (it’s also his debut feature), but Mailman – these days a
married mother of two – is happy to actively pursue whatever may come as a result.
“My head is spinning at the moment,” she says, before the premiere of The
Sapphires. “I cannot comprehend the magnitude of this – and I know how big it is.
I’m mixed between really being scared shitless and crazy out of my mind excited
about being at Cannes. I’ve been happy working [in Australia]. But this is starting to
open my mind up to the possibility [of working overseas].”
Before the world premiere of The Sapphires, the Croisette – the main drag of Cannes
– has been typically swamped with journalists and industry types devouring daily
servings of established names alongside young, rookie directors. Britain’s Ken Loach,
Austria’s Michael Haneke and a slew of American directors, led by Moonrise
Kingdom’s Anderson, have all resonated with critics in this, the festival’s 65th year.
Upcoming films by Hillcoat (Lawless) and New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik
(Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt) lead a surprisingly high-profile selection at
the tail of proceedings. And while a slew of other features from the region are being
spruiked to buyers – including another musical, Goddess, and the WWII
drama Emperor, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Lost’s Matthew Fox – The
Sapphires has, it seems, hit an undeniable nerve.
“It was 1968 in Australia,” producer Rosemary Blight says of the film. “It was a
period of the indigenous right to vote. The girls didn’t know how significant it was.
The amount of Australian artists who went to Vietnam – there were hundreds of
musicians and artists, both Australian and American. The stories are wild: bands
would hire a car and go into war zones, people got killed on stage. Yet it was a part of
people’s lives that they had wanted to keep private.”
Given the 4000-odd journalists covering Cannes – and the scores of locals crowded
around the festival’s Palais headquarters for brief glimpses of its stars – that secret
has been laid wide open. With Weinstein its most vocal champion, its future seems
SMH – May 20, 2012. Ed Gibbs