The Darkside: Film Review

"The Dark Side"
Ghostly encounters produce an engaging curiosity from Australia.

Deborah Mailman, Bryan Brown and Aaron Pedersen head up an ensemble cast relating "real-life" indigenous ghost tales in Warwick Thornton’s documentary hybrid.

Skin-prickling, amusing and occasionally heartbreaking, the indigenous ghost stories that make up director Warwick Thornton’s documentary-like feature, The Darkside, collectively expose the strong bond Australia’s Aboriginal inhabitants have with the hereafter. Cynics are shut out of this party as each of the 13 "true-life tales," mostly delivered as direct-to-camera monologues by a succession of well-known Australian actors, is a stand-alone endorsement of the existence of life after death. Those who do believe will find this art house curiosity oddly comforting as the storytelling gives the sense that the dearly departed never really do. The film premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival and screens at the upcoming Brisbane International Film Festival ahead of a domestic theatrical rollout beginning on Nov. 28. Overseas festival interest is likely given Thornton’s debut film, the tough tale of indigenous teen love, Samson & Delilah, won the 2009 Cannes Camera d’Or.

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The filmmakers were expecting a rush of horror stories when they made a nationwide call-out through indigenous media for first-hand accounts of ghostly encounters. But the resulting hundred-odd stories, culled to a handful, were heavy on emotion and a sense of kinship with the afterlife. Rather than the bumps and scares he was expecting to create, Thornton’s film grew organically into a gentler, poignant anthology with a creeping impact.

Audio recordings of interviews with the original storytellers have been interpreted in a variety of ways; they are all rather matter-of-factly relayed, with no attempt made to link them other than by theme. Deborah Mailman (Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires) sits in a wicker chair on a bush verandah, reeling off the litany of death and madness caused by a found Ouija board as windchimes tinkle, and a white-haired woman (Marcia Langton) flips Tarot cards in the background. Perched beside a marina, Bryan Brown, in colorful board shorts, tells of a brush with the apparition of a young Aboriginal girl while fishing. From Claudia Karvan’s (33 Postcards) upper-crust white socialite to Aaron Pedersen’s (Mystery Road) still-spooked larrikin, the characters range over the spectrum of Australian life.

Thornton, working here as cinematographer (he filled that role on last year’s local success The Sapphires) as well as director, loves a beautifully framed image. He places his actors against a variety of stylized backdrops, from a rocky, windswept shoreline to an antiseptic hospital corridor. The yarns they weave bristle with intricate description -- down to the embroidery on a young girl’s dress -- and the actors speak haltingly incomplete sentences, adding to the authenticity of the translation to the screen. At the end of each segment, the storyteller pauses and looks challengingly at the camera as if to say, “Do you believe me?”

Venue: Adelaide Film Festival

Production company: Scarlett Pictures

Cast: Deborah Mailman, Sacha Horler, Jack Charles, Claudia Karvan, Bryan Brown, Aaron Pedersen.

Director: Warwick Thornton

Producer: Kath Shelper

Director of photography: Warwick Thornton

Production and costume designer: Annie Beauchamp

Editor: Roland Gallois

Sales: Artscape

No rating, 94 minutes