Friday, March 17, 2017

Movie Review: Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones: 3 Stars

I write this with a bit of a heavy heart. See, we did Craig Silvey's "Jasper Jones" in book group a couple of years ago and it was one of the highlights of the year. It's a young adult book which looks at themes of country towns, outcasts, racism, family violence and growing up. It's a fantastic book.

Then last year, the Melbourne Theatre Company put on "Jasper Jones" as a play - and did a fantastic job of it. Atmospheric and edgy, it caught these themes of he book very well indeed.

In Rachel Perkin's film of Jasper Jones, I came away both disappointed and a little bemused. How could they take my most wonderful book and play and sanitise it with the vengeance of a bleach bath. This was not my Jasper Jones. This was pretty much Jasper Jones for 12-year-olds - which is what I think the director and the screenwriters might have been aiming at.

Okay, the story in brief. Misfit, Charlie Bucktin, is woken in the middle of the night by Jasper Jones, a half-aboriginal youth, who is the town scapegoat and tearaw. Jasper needs Charlie's help - something that Charlie could never envisage. Going with Jasper, they walk to a nearby billabong where they find a local girl hanging from a tree. Jasper and Charlie, after some discussion, place the weighted body of the girl in the billabong.

The next day, we find out that a girl is missing (said girl now at the bottom of the billabong) and the town is on high alert. The town of Corrigan, just out of Perth, is in a state of disarray.

Add to this, Charlie's parents marriage is in its death throws, there is a mad old hermit who half-terrorises the neighbourhood and the dead girl's sister has a bit of a thing for Charlie. Oh, and this is set in 1969, so add to this a Chinese / Vietnamese family into the mix with all the Vietnam War tensions.

Yeah, there should be a lot of tension.

Well, sort of. They've turned my wonderful and edgy book into a coming of age movie. This is not the worst thing in the world, but it's not the same as the book.

Levi Miller plays Charlie - and he is excellent. Aaron McGrath is similarly great as the misunderstood Jasper. Angourie Rice makes a very fetching Eliza, sister to the dead girl. Hugo Weaving is also great as Mad Jack - a pivotal role in the book which misses the mark despite the great performance. Dan Wyllie and Toni Collette are very credible as Charlie's parents.

And somebody who I loved more in the film, than in the play, Kevin Long was great as Jeffrey Lu, a 13-year-old Vietnamese cricket tragic and Charlie's mate. They got him right. He also provides some light relieve among the darker themes.

But this films falls short of the mark. The tension is not there. It feels more like  a coming of age story than the edgy social commentary which is provided so well by the book. They only touch lightly on the racism that is set towards Jasper and the Lu family. The family violence theme is only lightly handled. The sense of being an outcast isn't as pronounced as it could be. At the end of the film, you feel this is more a film about Charlie and his journey to becoming a man and falling love, where Jasper's role is played down. How Mad Jack and Jasper play out is also not shown, which is more the pity. There is a lot of the small town dynamics which could have been handled better.

There are some terrific lines and scenes in the film, as well as a number of great laugh out loud moments. (What would you rather, a hat made of spiders or have penises for fingers?). Also, the town of Manjimup, playing Corrigan, is perfect in it's role as every country town in the Australia in the late sixties. The soundscape, the caw of the magpies and the hum of V8 engines is fantastic.

But this misses the mark.

With the themes of suicide so prevalent, I wouldn't be taking anybody under the age of twelve to this (Saying this, the once scene is brief and very well handled), but this is a film for young adults, sanitised to the point of the Australian Public Service Political Correctness with an injection of fairy floss.

I did enjoy the film. I just reckon that this could have been a lot better given a bit of courage from the director and screenwriters.

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