'Dirt Music': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Pretty but corny and contrived.

Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund star as adulterous lovers haunted by a tragic past in this adaptation of Tim Winton's novel, directed by Gregor Jordan.

Kelly Macdonald is a fine Scottish actor, able to master different regional accents, and in possession of the interesting features and expressive range that make for a compelling performer. And yet there's something about her that keeps inspiring filmmakers to cast her as either a put-upon wife (Puzzle) or a working-class drudge (Goodbye Christopher Robin), or maybe even a drudge who becomes a put-upon wife (TV's Boardwalk Empire).

At least in the Australian-set drama Dirt Music she gets to play a slight variation on these types as Georgie, formerly a nurse, now the frustrated live-in girlfriend of a wealthy fishing kingpin (David Wenham). It makes a change in some ways, although sadly this love-triangle tale, based on a well-regarded novel by Tim Winton and directed by Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers), mostly calls on Macdonald to spend a lot of screen time moping lovelorn around a bungalow or traversing large stretches of the outback squinting into the sun, in search of co-star Garrett Hedlund.

One can only imagine the cast and crew had a magnificent time exploring rarely filmed beaches and coves of Western Australia, but the corny, eventually rather contrived result doesn't end up doing justice to either its cast's talents or the quality of Winton's acclaimed prose.  

That said, even with its flaws, Dirt Music is lush to look at, offering up dazzling, sun-seared landscapes, sparkling seas and abundant shots of Hedlund with his shirt off, ogling his body far more than Macdonald's as if he were some nubile starlet. In old-school, film theory terms, the controlling gaze here is decidedly feminine, or at least that of spectators who enjoy the spectacle of chiseled male bodies. And also of vintage Aussie cars and adorable dogs.

As the story begins, Georgie spends her days slyly slurping down white wine in the real-estate-porn centerfold of a house that belongs to Jim Buckridge (Wenham), the widowed head of the most successful fleet of fishing vehicles specializing in crustaceans in fictional White Point, a suburb of Perth. Georgie is fond of Jim's young sons whom she looks after, and enjoys up to a point the status of being Jim's partner, but she's a bit of a crayfish out of water herself given she's originally from a fairly posh family in the city. When she goes for a skinny dip in the ocean one morning at a cinematic magic hour and sees Lu Fox (Hedlund) poaching in waters controlled by Jim, the attraction between them is immediate.  

Before long they're having a full-blown affair and getting more and more emotionally involved, even though initially it had just really been about lust, it would seem. Georgie grows more curious about the past Lu tries to draw a veil over, but gradually his tragic backstory is revealed via flashbacks to his days as the member of a musical trio playing acoustic folky numbers (the "dirt music" of the title) with his late brother Darkie (George Mason) and Sal (Julia Stone, one half of the brother-sister group Angus & Julia Stone in real life).

It transpires that Lu lost Darkie, Sal and their young daughter Bird (Ava Caryofyllis) in one fell, fatal swoop and he still mourns them deeply. That partially explains why he takes off so suddenly and abandons Georgie after what appears to be a vicious, retributive attack from Jim on his truck and adorable dog.  

That means for an unreasonably long, dramatically thin stretch of the running time, Lu is seen traveling across the country to a place Georgie once described as her favorite spot in the world, while the editing crosscuts to her rifling through his stuff back in his photogenically dilapidated house. Then the journey is pursued all over again, sending the film into a melodramatic spiral at the end.

Given their characters only spend a limited amount of screen time together, Macdonald and Hedlund have a reasonable chemistry, but the unkind thought starts to creep in that some of the other characters might have been more interesting to follow, like Beaver (Aaron Pedersen), the salty sea dog employee of Jim's, or even the tough old codger who acts as Georgie's guide (Chris Haywood) — or really just anyone instead of these mopey lovelorn dullards.

Production companies: Wildgaze Films, Aquarius Films, Film4
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund, David Wenham, Aaron Pedersen, George Mason, Julia Stone, Ava Caryofyllis, Jacob Clayton, Kohen Mills, Chris Haywood, Dan Wyllie
Director: Gregor Jordan
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne, based on the novel by Tim Winton
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey, Angie Fielder, Polly Staniford, 
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith, Lauren Dark, Peter Touche, Stephen Dailey
Director of photography: Sam Chiplin
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Editor: Pia Di Ciaula
Music: Craig Armstrong
Music supervisor: Kle Savidge
Casting: Kirsty McGregor, Lucy Bevan
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Cornerstone Films

104 minutes