'High Ground': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Sarah Enticknap/High Ground Picture
Dances with wallabies.

White settlers clash with Aboriginal Australians in Stephen Maxwell Johnson's visually impressive Western-style revenge drama.

A revisionist Outback Western set in early 20th century Australia, High Ground draws on genre conventions but also transcends them with some unusually thoughtful elements, notably its meticulous and respectful depiction of Aboriginal culture. The result is a gripping, visually spectacular revenge thriller that makes superb use of stunning landscapes while also addressing the lingering scars of colonial-era racism. World premiering in Berlin this week, director Stephen Maxwell Johnson's second feature boasts high technical polish and potentially broad audience appeal. Samuel Goldwyn Films have already signed up North American rights.

Johnson began his filmmaking career in Australia's Northern Territory, where Aboriginal culture and language are still strong. His long-standing links to the local Yolgnu and Bininj communities informed his debut feature Yolngu Boy (2001) and his video clips for the racially mixed rock band Yothu Yindi. Indeed, former bandmember Witiyana Marika serves as co-star, producer, cultural adviser and soundtrack vocalist on High Ground. This is only Johnson's second feature in almost 20 years, partly because it took years of negotiation with indigenous communities to earn their trust and co-operation. An army of Aboriginal actors, musicians, clan elders and traditional land custodians feature heavily in the film's credits.

Partly inspired by real events, High Ground opens in 1919 at an idyllic watering hole deep in the vast wilderness of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. A peaceful Aboriginal family gathering is rudely interrupted by a posse of white police officers chasing runaway bandits. Under the cool-headed command of former World War I sniper Travis (The Mentalist star Simon Baker), the operation is supposed to proceed with minimal force, but trigger-happy lawman Eddy (Callan Mulvey) soon turns the scene into a bloodbath. A disgusted Travis takes pity on one of only two indigenous survivors, a young boy called Gutjuk, dropping him off at a nearby colonial outpost to be raised by white missionaries.

Twelve years later, the massacre and subsequent cover-up continues to haunt Travis. Having quit the police to work as a bounty hunter, he grudgingly bows to pressure from his former boss Moran (veteran Australian screen icon Jack Thompson) to help deal with Gutjuk's uncle Baywarra (Sean Mununggur), who is leading a vengeful guerrilla war against white settlers.

Recruiting the adult Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) as his tracker, Travis sets off into the Outback to try and broker a peaceful solution with Baywarra. But hardliners on both sides are pushing for violent retribution, with guilty secrets and divided loyalties poisoning the atmosphere. In a neat piece of narrative symmetry, a final showdown looms at the same lakeside location as the previous bloodbath.

Maxwell and his team take great pains to balance the narrative viewpoint in High Ground between European settler and Aboriginal characters, with plenty of scenes that showcase the local Yolngu languages and customs. Screenwriter Chris Anastassiades mostly avoids the dubious “white savior” tropes that sometimes mar race-themed historical dramas, but he does resort to thin caricatures at times, from boorish colonialist thugs to noble indigenous warriors. Baker and Nayinggul both give their terse, morally conflicted anti-heroes a soulful depth, but Eddy is little more than a one-dimensional stage villain, unashamedly racist and devoid of any redeeming scruples. The handful of female characters in this loveless macho world are also sketchy presences, sharing just a few skimpy lines between them.

That said, High Ground is a very impressive package overall, a visually ravishing and commendably nuanced frontier saga with a timely anti-racist message, all told through an Australian historical lens. Cinematographer Andrew Commis is a key asset here, capturing the sumptuous colors, abundant wildlife and towering rock formations of the Kakadu National Park locations with majestic aerial drone shots. Sound design and music also play a crucial role, with Marika and his son Yirrmal singing Yolngu songs over a rich tapestry of birdsong and ambient wilderness sounds.

Production companies: Bunya Productions, Savage Films, Maxo Studios
Cast: Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Jack Thompson, Sean Mununggur, Callan Mulvey, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Aaron Pedersen, Caren Pistorius, Ryan Corr 
Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Screenwriter: Chris Anastassiades
Cinematographer: Andrew Commis
Editors: Jill Bilcock, Karyn de Cinque, Hayley Miro Browne
Sound designer: Chris Goodes
Producers: Witiyana Marika, Greer Simpkin, David Jowsey, Maggie Miles, Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Special Gala)
Sales: Playtime, Paris

104 minutes