'Bellbird': Film Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival & Awards Macao
A gently poignant tale of survivorhood we’ve seen before.

Writer-director Hamish Bennett won the best screenplay award in Macao for his story about a New Zealand farmer who grooms his reluctant son to take over the milk cows.

The heartwarming tale of a New Zealand farming family whose equilibrium is upset by a traumatic loss is told with a calm belief in humanity and reasonable outcomes in Bellbird. It steers away from anything modern or flashy to concentrate on the feelings between a farmer and his son, and dramatic conflict be damned. Perhaps because of this quiet approach, and the conviction put into it by first-time writer-director Hamish Bennett, Bellbird has something special to offer.

An expansion of his 2014 short film Ross & Beth, this first feature took home the best screenplay prize at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao. Its lush green good looks, courtesy of cinematographer Grant McKinnon, and a well-chosen cast who linger in the mind should tie it to the post of some nice television spots once its festival run, which began in Sydney and Melbourne, is over.

Nature and the changing seasons are in control of the forested Northland region, where the film is set amid bright rolling hills. In contrast to this idyllic background, the muckiness of farm work and milking, cleaning cow stalls and hands-on visits from the vet furnish an undercurrent of humor that keeps the tone light. One waits in vain for an explosive scene that will clarify positions and clear the air. None of that here — the brewing emotional storm passes over the little dairy farm without breaking, and one feels relief that all is right in the world of New Zealand Gothic.

Most of the interest revolves around the subtlety of the actors and their ability to communicate wordlessly with each other. Actor-playwright Marshall Napier is the taciturn farm owner Ross, who plays the role of grumpy old codger while his wife Beth (Annie Whittle) plays the cheery, chatty wife. Yet the relationship works. When she dies early on and is buried in the little cemetery behind the house, he plunges into a dark place. Repulsing all offers of help from his neighbors, he insists that his 30-ish son Bruce (winsome comedian Cohen Holloway in a straight role) prepare to take the reins on the farm. A polite, wordless tug-of-war ensues over how the pathologically squeamish Bruce is going to learn all there is to know about calving, when the mere sight of blood and mucous makes him throw up.

Though he seems totally unsuited to farming, Bruce feels comfortable around garbage, or more precisely people’s throwaways discarded at the local refuse station. He delights in sorting through the stuff and cleverly repairing it for resale, but it's hardly a lifelong profession, as his dad points out. The only person the shy fellow can confide in is sunny, no-nonsense Connie (Rachel House), his boss.

There is a great deal of affection visible beneath the bovine staidness of Ross and Bruce, whose determined refusal to waste words has become a way of life. The only way this works is through the Napier and Holloway's talent in channeling their feelings in the subtlest ways possible; the story’s poignancy is in what is left unsaid. Local vet Klem (Stephen Tamarapa) is a hoot when he demonstrates to the faint-hearted Bruce how to give a pregnant cow a rectal probe, and young Kahukura Retimana makes an impressive screen bow as a brassy local boy who lends Ross a hand after school. Composer Karl Stevens accompanies these lives with a score making original use of ukuleles, reed organs and trumpets.

Production companies: Herringbone Productions, Stella Maria Production, Blue Skin Films
Cast: Marshall Napier, Annie Whittle, Cohen Holloway, Rachel House, Kahukura Retimana
Director-screenwriter: Hamish Bennett
Producers: Catherine Fitzgerald, Orlando Stewart
Director of photography: Grant McKinnon
Production designer: Shayne Radford
Costume designer: Emily Carter
Editor: Jason Pengelly
Music: Karl Steven
Casting: Joe Fisher, Stu Turner
World sales: LevelK Film 
Venue: International Film Festival & Awards Macao

96 minutes