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Following in the horseshoe prints of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country and Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, debuting feature writer-director Roderick MacKay continues to mine the classic archetypes and tropes of the Western to explore the complex cross-cultural historical threads of Australian identity in The Furnace. While the simmering threat of violence could have been dialed up into more visceral climactic set-pieces, the film tells an engrossing story of a little-known chapter in colonial history, unfolding across the ruggedly beautiful desert landscapes of Western Australia.
The surreal presence of camels may be common in images of the Australian outback, but MacKay builds his screenplay around the largely forgotten existence of the original handlers that came with them. Starting in the 1860s, thousands of Islamic, Sikh and Hindu cameleers were imported by The Crown from India, Afghanistan and Persia to transport freight across the inhospitable interior, linking colonies to settlements that sprung up during the gold rush. They drew on Aboriginal knowledge of the land to navigate desert routes, forming bonds with Indigenous Australians that remain evident in their descendants living among Aboriginal communities today.
That kinship no doubt grew partly out of the shared sting of prejudice from the country’s white settlers, who regard them as foreign filth; MacKay broadens the lens of entrenched colonial racism to include the vilified Chinese immigrants of the time.
Many camel herders, collectively known as “Ghans,” irrespective of their origins, were coerced into indentured labor, causing some to break out on their own and try to earn money for their passage home. Others, rendered obsolete when motorized transport came along, were gradually absorbed into the multicultural tapestry of a nation that is still struggling to reconcile the racial injustices of its past.
The action takes place in 1897, when young Afghan cameleer Hanif (Ahmed Malek) and his Indian mentor Jundah (Kaushik Das) have left their British employers to try to make a go of their own business. Hanif is anxious to head north where there are more trading opportunities, but Jundah wants to stay behind and join their Aboriginal friend Woorak (Bayhkali Ganambarr) in his Badimia tribe’s initiation ceremony. The fact that the three men from different cultures communicate in Badimaya — now considered a “sleeping language” — suggests the depth of their fraternal connection.
In a quick succession of events, Jundah is killed over a minor dispute with a white prospector, and Hanif comes across Mal (David Wenham), a white bushman wounded in a robbery, carrying £3,000 worth of stolen gold bars marked with the Crown seal. Badimia tribal elder Coobering (Trevor Jamieson) is angered by the twin dangers of a whitefella in their territory and the precious gold that drives men mad, causing him to withdraw his invitation to Hanif to vanish into the desert with them.
Left alone with no other recourse, Hanif abandons his faith. He teams up with the shifty, opium-addicted Mal in exchange for the promise of a share when they reach the latter’s business partner Jimmy, who runs an illegal furnace where the gold can be melted down to remove the identifying marks.
Accompanied by Hanif’s docile camel Lila, the unlikely pair are pursued by a new law enforcement arm known as the Gold Squad. That group is led by hotheaded Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan), eager to prove not only his own ruthless efficiency but to boost the standing of his diffident son, Trooper Sam (Samson Coulter). Fresh treachery emerges as the identity and secret location of Jimmy are revealed, while another pair of outlaws, cryptically referred to by Mal as “the Devil and his dog,” also follow on the fugitives’ heels.
MacKay and his capable leads etch full-bodied characters, with veteran Wenham in fine crusty form as a wily opportunist who has been a willing participant in colonial Australia’s brutal enforcement of racial hierarchy, and appealing Egyptian actor Malek uncovering sensitive shadings as the circumspect but honorable Hanif. While the gulf of mistrust between them inevitably shrinks as their reliance on one another grows more urgent, the script never glosses over the reality of their cultural distance. Among the supporting cast, Indigenous actor Ganambarr (memorable in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale) makes the most vivid impression.
The storytelling could have been more suspenseful, perhaps with more dynamic cross-cutting among the various strands as events build to a shootout with Shaw’s men and an ugly aftermath with Mal’s outlaw foes. MacKay adopts many canonical elements of the classic Western — a lawless wilderness; a frontier society built on bloodshed; conflict among settlers, natives and non-white immigrants; torn loyalties; blurred lines of villainy — but the taut structure to make this an outstanding example of the genre is lacking.
Still, DP Michael McDermott’s graceful camerawork makes an atmospheric, adversarial backdrop of the ancient landscapes of the Western Australian interior, and production designer Clayton Jauncey does a fine job recreating the gold-rush town of Mount Magnet in its infancy.
The Furnace is a handsomely mounted film of an ambitious scale for a first feature, and there’s much to admire in its measured approach, echoed in the brooding strings of Mark Bradshaw’s score. Most of all, it holds your attention with its unfamiliar account of pioneer immigrant experience and its poignant depiction of the affinity between those outsiders and Indigenous Australians.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Southern Light Films, Meaning Maker, The Koop, in association with Arclight Films, Siamese
Cast: Ahmed Malek, David Wenham, Jay Ryan, Erik Thomson, Baykali Ganambarr, Trevor Jamieson, Wakara Gondarra, Samson Coulter, Steve McCall, Manesh Jadu, Osamah Sami, Kaushik Das, Mansoor Noor, Dayal Singh, Sean Choolburra, Goran D. Kleut, Amanda Ma, Gary Young
Director-screenwriter: Roderick MacKay
Producers: Timothy White, Tenille Kennedy
Executive producers: Roderick MacKay, Brendon Grylls, Kelvin Munro, Grant Sputore, Bryce Menzies, Bill Beament, Jeff Harrison, Ari Harrison, Ying Ye, Michelle Krumm, David Wenham, Julian Burt, Alexandra Burt, Charlie Bass, Matt Bass, Justin McArdle, Ian Hale
Director of photography: Michael McDermott
Production designer: Clayton Jauncey
Costume designer: Lisa Gunning Galea
Music: Mark Bradshaw
Editor: Merlin Eden
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Sales: Arclight Films
In English, Badimaya, Pashto, Punjabi and Cantonese
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