The Proposition (18)

Directed by John Hillcoat, Written by Nick Cave
On general release from 10th March 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

Any follower of Nick Cave's musical career knows that he isn't exactly the happiest bunny in the hutch, as he revels in off-the-rails romantics, murdered muses and the 'abattoir blues' of surviving the modern world. So this exploration of Australia's colonisation by Britain runs pretty much to form, assaulting the viewer with an intelligent work of grisly beauty that practically drowns in its own well of misery.

The opening scene immediately confronts the viewer with the ambiguity that will run throughout. Shots are pinging everywhere; someone is attacking and someone is under siege. The blistering sunlight slants in through holes in the walls, and flies buzz madly about, providing an obvious but brilliant metaphor for encroaching perversity.

It is the Irish-born Burns family who are being attacked, and the British forces who are doing the attacking. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is desperate to protect his kid brother Mike (Richard Wilson, not that one) from the vicious police force. For his part, police Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) just wants to wrap his wife (Emily Watson) up in a kind of cotton wool Australian outback where everyone is 'civilised' and everyone drinks tea the English way. To do this, he eventually proposes to spare the lives of Charlie and Mike if Charlie kills his outlaw brother Arthur (Danny Huston) before Christmas Day. Reluctantly, Charlie starts to hunt Arthur down, encountering moral doubts and vicious violence along the way. Meanwhile, posher than posh British landowner Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) thinks Stanley is being far too soft on the Irish working class and the aboriginals, so he won't take it much longer.

The short, sharp bursts of sickening sadism are made all the more dramatic by comparison with the moments of tenderness and affection that they terminate. Guy Pearce delivers an understated but remarkable performance as the deeply conflicted Charlie, while Ray Winstone shows a previously unseen compassionate side to his acting. Emily Watson is particularly magnificent, conveying more with a slight movement of her stiff upper lip than many much bigger stars could manage in an entire film.

Though The Proposition gives us precious little hope to cling to, Cave and Hillcoat's third film together can be read as a look at what happens to potentially decent people when countries go round invading each other. This is particularly relevant to Australia at the moment, because the country is a fully paid-up member of the US-led axis of evil. As such, The Proposition may represent the beginnings of a political awakening in Australian cinema to rival that underway in sections of Hollywood.

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