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Festivals are great because you get to just walk around the corner and see a new band that you’ve heard but not had the chance to check out. – Johnny Marr
At a recent talk on the subject of the film industry, The Big Picture’s Mark Hadley shared the four categories of Australian cinema. The historical epic, the confession, the nihilistic drama and the kitsch comedy were his classifications and his definitions made for a brilliant and informative talk. His commentary provided a clear distinction of the Australian influence on the cinematic world and makes reviews of these films a richer experience. Three Summers sits squarely in the kitsch comedy category, but is it in the same league with classics like Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle?
Australia’s adopted larrikin Ben Elton directs this comedic adventure over three summers at the Western Australia folk music festival, ‘Westival.’ Each year various musicians come from around the world to share their interpretation of folk music in the backwoods of Australia’s largest state. From Aboriginal dancers to an Aussie Morris dance troupe, the different representations of folk music lead to the potential of hilarious and dramatic confrontations between cultures and generations. At the heart of the story is the budding relationship between the lead singer of an Irish folk band called the Warrikins (Rebecca Breeds) and a cutting-edge Theremin player (Robert Sheehan) who pushes the boundaries of music and love.
Even though Ben Elton is an English writer/director, he does manage to capture the irreverent and self-deprecating spirit of Australian humor. Playing it against the unique atmosphere of the music festival provides a brilliant atmosphere for this clash of cultures and musical interpretations. The set up of the various stories that surround the quirky love story is good fun and engaging, but as things progress toward the sharp-edged message of asylum seekers the jocularity loses its luster.
The cast is a menagerie of some of Australia’s great comedic royalty. With Peter Rowsthorn, Magda Szubanski and Michael Caton on set, Elton merely has to allow these veterans loose with the characters to provide a hilarious mixture that provides the springboard for an excursion into true Aussie flavored humor. Each capitalizes on the talents that have made them a mainstay on the big and small screen by tapping into the perfect characters that anyone might see at the local caravan park. Szubanski is the proverbial glue that keeps the three journey together. This constant swirl of humorous activity lightens the dramatic tension brought on by the tenuous romance between Breeds and Sheehan and the continual reminder of asylum seeker support.
The message surrounding the plight of the refugees is an important issue for our country, but the ham-fisted method of delivery was counterproductive to Three Summers. The British director attempts to draw from the immigrant heritage of Australia that dates back to the First Fleet by drawing a line to the refugee boats of the modern era. To address the issues of the Aboriginal plight, refugees and the other atrocities of Australian immigration brings about a herculean task that is too much for this light comedy to bear. This less than subtle theme turned an uncommon and enjoyable romantic comedy into a drama with some comedy added in for good measure. Not to diminish the challenges faced by the refugees but Elton could have delivered his message with a lighter touch and it would have achieved his goal of national awareness.