Australia’s insatiable love affair with land and online pokies is renowned, as is its passion for scratchies, sports betting, race betting, lotteries and just about everything in between.
So it’s probably no surprise that gambling has played an important role in a handful of home grown Aussie films.
Ask any foreigner who has never been to Australia what they associate most with the country and the majority will likely say kangaroos, boomerangs, Sydney Opera House, lethal animals, the Outback, the saying ”throw a shrimp on the barbie,” the Great Barrier Reef and Crocodile Dundee. Few if any will say gambling.
This is because few outsiders have any idea of how prevalent gambling is in Australia which is one of the reasons why the subject has been broached in a few domestic films.
One of the most recent is Broke (2016), a hard-hitting film centred around Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), a disgraced player, match-fixing and problem gambling. While not a biopic, the NRL has been subject to many allegations of match-fixing as well as problem gambling during the last decade and more, and this film weaves a sad but compelling tale around that.
The Australian-produced and filmed flick was a passion project for Australian director Heath Davis who also wrote the screenplay. Davis said he was inspired to make the movie when he got to know former National Rugby League players in his native Sydney. Some of these players had fallen from grace due to their alleged involvement in match-fixing and had severe gambling problems.
Filmed in Gladstone, Queensland, the film’s gritty depiction of the world of the NRL and its no-holds-barred portrayal of players, especially those with gambling problems, was highly lauded. In fact, Broke won Davis the Best Screenplay at the 2016 SENE Film, Music and Art Festival and earned him a nomination for Best Narrative Feature at the 2017 Fargo Film Festival.
It even received high praise from Australian gambling addiction organisations, groups and counsellors for its accurate portrayal of gambling addiction and for spreading the message that gambling addiction is treatable and should therefore not be stigmatised.
Fourteen years before Broke was released, Australian film audiences were treated to Dirty Deeds (2002). Written and directed by Australian filmmaker David Caesar, Dirty Deeds is a fun and entertaining story of fast-talking gangster Barry Ryan who single-handedly controls the pokie machine industry in Sydney in the late 1960s.
Ryan’s business is doing particularly well because of the influx of US soldiers on R&R from the Vietnam War who are drawn to his pokie venues. However, news of Ryan’s success soon makes its way across the Pacific to America where it reaches the Mafia. Eager to get their hands on his pokie empire, the Mafia dispatches two hitmen to Sydney to try and ‘persuade’ Ryan to share the wealth, which is where movie mayhem ensues.
The film boasts a solid cast of Australian and American actors including Sam Worthington, Bryan Brown and Toni Collette. They’re joined by John Goodman and Felix Williamson who play Mafia hitmen Tony Testano and Sal Cassela respectively. Sam Neill plays Detective Sergeant Ray Murphy while Kestie Morassi plays Ryan’s mistress Margaret.
Despite being a crime comedy, Dirty Deeds accurately portrays the high demand for pokie machines in Australia in the 1960s – the same demand that exists today. The only difference is that players can now also play hundreds of real money pokies on the internet. And although many online casinos pulled out of Australia recently due to legalities, the gap was filled quickly by many premier Australian no deposit casinos.
Dirty Deeds was generally well-received in Australia and beyond when it was released and still stands up as an engaging crime caper today.
Oscar and Lucinda
Five years before the release of Dirty Deeds, Oscar and Lucinda (1997) hit the big screen to much fanfare for its poignant storyline and talented Australian and British cast and crew. Directed by award-winning Aussie film and documentary maker Gillian Armstrong from a script by fellow Australian Laura Jones, the film is set in the mid-1800s.
It follows the story of Oscar Hopkins, a young and spirited Anglican priest from England and Lucinda Leplastrier, a wealthy teenage heiress and glass factory owner from Australia who seeks to change the male-dominated culture of her country, and their life-changing wager.
Both avid casino gamblers, Oscar and Lucinda meet and bond at a card game on a ship traveling from England to Australia. Lucinda bets Oscar her entire fortune that he can’t transport a glass church she’s had built to the Outback safely, and Oscar accepts. What follows is a dramatic and romantic series of events that alters their lives forever.
The film was well received Down Under for its gambling / wagering storyline, and its strong Australian and international cast. Oscar is played by multiple Academy Award-nominee Ralph Fiennes and Lucinda by multiple Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett. Other key actors include Ciaran Hinds as the Reverend Dennis Hasset, Tom Wilkinson as Hugh Stratton and Geoffrey Rush who narrates the film.
The film was mainly shot in and around Sydney and across the state of New South Wales. Although it wasn’t a box office success, critics and viewers alike applauded the performances of two leads. The film also won a slew of awards and even received a nomination for Best Costume Design at the 1998 Academy Awards. Oscar and Lucinda achieved a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
**Also see Wake in Fright!