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SYDNEY — There are stretches of Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog, particularly those featuring its canine lead picking his way along some dusty Outback trail on a solitary quest, when the film achieves a kind of existential purity. But then the two-legged actors butt in and the moment is lost.
For the most part, this domesticated family drama about a hitchhiking hound that united a remote Australian mining community in the 1970s is genial but unsophisticated fare, with plenty of hammy acting and broad humor.
Like the titular pooch, the fact-based film has roamed far and wide, premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, before charming audiences at festivals in the U.S., the U.K. and Jerusalem. It screens in the Melbourne International Film Festival before opening on Australian screens August 4.
Red Dog, played with remarkable eloquence by a local named Koko, was a stray kelpie cross with fur as red as the iron ore underpinning the fledgling mining outpost where he lived in the far north of Western Australia. It was the exploits of this charismatic canine – who saved lives, played matchmaker and is said to have wandered across thousands of miles for years searching for his missing master – that prompted the Dampier locals to erect a statue to him at the entrance to their town.
The British writer Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) came across the statue and was inspired to write the novella on which Dan Taplitz’s screenplay is based.
Plenty of legends sprang up around Red Dog and, in the film, these are duly relayed to a truck driver (Luke Ford, from Animal Kingdom) who arrives at the local pub to find the town mascot dying from a dose of poisoned bait.
In flashback, we see the scrappy adventurer hitch a ride into town with the newly arrived publican (Noah Taylor) and promptly become confidante to a disparate bunch of lonely men. He is everyone’s dog, but no one’s in particular – until he meets American bus driver John (Josh Lucas) and sees in him a fellow transient searching for a place to belong.
Unembellished by effects or guile, Red Dog celebrates nostalgia along with the pioneering spirit of those who first worked the alien, rust-colored landscape, strikingly photographed by cinematographer Geoffrey Hall. There is a plain-spoken quality to the storytelling that borders on naivety, and some of the more roughly drawn characters begin to grate early.
Lucas gives a relaxed performance and Rachael Taylor(Transformers), as his love interest Nancy, one of the few women in town, is suitably spunky. But their furry co-star puts his more garrulous companions in the shade. New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Whale Rider when she was just 11, is wasted in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as a miner’s wife.
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Production company: Woss Group Film Productions
Cast: Josh Lucas, Rachael Taylor, Noah Taylor, Keisha Castle-Hughes
Director: Kriv Stenders
Screenwriter: Dan Taplitz
Based on the book by: Louis de Bernieres
Producers: Nelson Woss, Julie Ryan
Executive producers: Aaron Ryder, Joel Pearlman, Graham Burke
Director of photography: Geoffrey Hall
Production designer: Ian Gracie
Costume designer: Mariot Kerr
Music: Cezary Skubiszewski
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Sales: Essential Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival