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A galaxy of Australian screen legends including Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush and Toni Colette line up to pay homage to an elder statesman of film criticism in director Sally Aitken’s unashamedly partial but agreeably warm-hearted documentary. Screening in the Cannes Classics section, which this year is dedicated to the history of film itself, A Cinematic Life centers on 77-year-old David Stratton, a kind of Roger Ebert figure on the Australian cultural landscape.
Born in Britain but residing in Australia for over half a century, Stratton has spent most of his career nurturing and championing the domestic cinema industry in his beloved adopted homeland, first as director of the Sydney Film Festival, then as a prominent critic in print and on television. He retired from the small screen in 2014, and Aitken’s documentary feels like the journalistic equivalent of a gold retirement watch — or maybe a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.
Already screened in Australian theaters, A Cinematic Life will air in expanded form as a three-part series on domestic state broadcaster ABC next month. The starry cast, rich subject matter and slick technical polish should help secure further festival bookings and TV interest globally.
In a clunky structural device, A Cinematic Life uses elements of Stratton’s biography to mirror broad general themes from a vast archive of Australian movie treasures. A lifelong big-screen obsessive who has seen and catalogued more than 25,000 features, he freewheels through the decades in non-linear fashion, reflecting on some of the films that have resonated personally, nationally and globally. His journey takes in cult classics and surprise breakout hits including Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max, My Brilliant Career, Strictly Ballroom, The Castle, Lantana, Shine, Muriel’s Wedding, Animal Kingdom and many more.
Many of the key talents behind these films share their memories here including Mad Max creator George Miller, The Piano director Jane Campion and screen stars Sam Neill, Judy Davis and Eric Bana. Former journalistic colleagues including Todd McCarthy, chief film critic at The Hollywood Reporter, also pay homage to Stratton’s encyclopedic movie knowledge.
All this cosy mutual flattery becomes tiresome at times, but thankfully there are exceptions like Geoffrey Wright, director of Russell Crowe’s controversial 1992 breakthrough film Romper Stomper, which Stratton attacked for its one-sided depiction of a violent neo-Nazi skinhead gang. Although the scandal actually boosted his film’s commercial profile, Wright responded by throwing a glass of wine over his nemesis at the Venice Film Festival, and derides him on camera here as a “pompous windbag.” Crowe proves more gracious, saluting Stratton for sticking to his guns.
For a film notionally about criticism, A Cinematic Life is oddly uncritical, offering zero insights into Stratton’s working methods, private life or broader cultural and political views. However, Aitken’s documentary works best when it drops the contrived biographical parallels and dives straight into the rich history of homegrown Australian cinema, beginning in 1906 with the world’s first known feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. Ironically, this pic really comes alive when Stratton stands aside and becomes a minor character in his own life story.
A handful of heavyweights are notably absent from the interviewees — Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Baz Luhrmann, Mel Gibson — while Caitlin Yeo’s syrupy score becomes intrusive in places. That said, for even casual film fans, A Cinematic Life ultimately serves as a comprehensive and absorbing primer on a century of Australian cinema. An effortlessly indulgent pleasure in the middle of a bumpy Cannes program, it left me with a long list of movies that I am now craving to see. For a fellow fellow critic and film fan, there are few higher recommendations.
Production company: Stranger Than Fiction Films
Director-screenwriter: Sally Aitken
Producer: Jo-Anne McGowan
Cinematographer: Kevin Scott
Editor: Adrian Rostirolla
Music: Caitlin Yeo
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Sales: Stranger Than Fiction, Sydney
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