High Ground (2020) – Film Review
Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Cast: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey
By @Roger Crow
Simon Baker is terrific in just about everything he does, especially The Mentalist and The Devil Wears Prada. However, this Australian Western really gives him a chance to shine.
It opens with engaging scenes of Aboriginal life, where families do family things and all seems right with the world. And given such a placid opening, you know chaos is just around the corner.
It’s 1919, and veteran sniper Travis (Baker) is now a policeman in the vast and remote landscape of Northern Australia. He loses control of an operation resulting in the massacre of an indigenous tribe.
With his superior officers intent on burying the truth, Travis leaves disgusted, before being forced back a dozen years later in the hunt for outlaw Baywara, an Aboriginal warrior attacking new settlers.
“Characters are fascinating”
Recruiting Gutjuk as his tracker, Travis realises this young mission-raised indigenous man is the only known massacre-survivor.
When the truths of Travis’ past actions are suddenly revealed, it is Travis who becomes the hunted.
Baker is as splendid as ever, despite an initially unsympathetic role, while Jacob Junior Nayinggul offers excellent support as Gutjuk.
Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson does an excellent job of sustaining the attention throughout, and while it’s not an easy watch at times, the characters are fascinating and those Australian landscapes are beautifully shot. Take a bow cinematographer Andrew Commis.
“Well worth sticking with”
Johnson has remarked that his aim was to take an audience “on a ride through an aspect of Australia’s history that is under-represented, hopefully encouraging them to rethink the Australian story.”
He certainly manages to do that.
Solid support comes from Caren Pistorious, who was rather good in Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged, and Callan Mulvey (who you might remember from TV saga The Luminaries) is a terrific villain. The score, or lack of it for the most part, is a smart move. There’s none of that telling you what to think and when, which lends the movie a documentary feel.
Though it takes a while to adjust to the ‘geography’ of this early 20th-century drama, it’s well worth sticking with. Yes, there are echoes of classic dramas Breaker Morant (which also starred the great Jack Thompson) and Walkabout, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this also achieved acclaimed status as it works its magic on cinemagoers in Blighty.