Fighting For Survival: Australian Movie Women On The Edge

August 28, 2019
With the powerful colonial drama, The Nightingale, out this week, we look at other Australian films featuring strong women struggling to survive in dangerous, life-threatening but often thrilling crises.

THE NIGHTINGALE (2019) Already feted for its power and questioned for its horrific violence, The Nightingale is already established as one of the most telling and divisive Australian films of 2019. The second feature from commanding and assured writer/director, Jennifer Kent, this rich and unrelenting colonial drama-thriller follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish settler who lights out for vengeance after Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a vile, sadistic English military officer brutally rapes her and murders her husband and child. Aided by a similarly oppressed young Aboriginal man (Baykali Ganambarr), Clare traverses the Tasmanian wilderness in search of the man who took everything from her. Uncompromising and darkly poetic, The Nightingale is a tale of revenge unlike any other. Read much more about the film by clicking here and here. Click here for our review.

FAIR GAME (1986) The debut feature from Aussie director, Mario Andreacchio (now ironically best known for family films like The Real Macaw and Sally Marshall Is Not An Alien), Fair Game is a classic slab of lurid Ozploitation that fits squarely into the torrid female revenge genre, though it stretches and detonates many of its familiar tropes. Casandra Delaney stars as Jessica, who runs an isolated nature sanctuary and is caught up in a deadly game of cat and mouse when three kangaroo hunting goons – Sunny (Peter Ford), Ringo (David Sandford) and Sparks (Gary Who) – roll onto the property, and decide to make her their new prey. Filled with often shocking imagery (a scene featuring a near-naked Jessica strapped to the front of a hard-charging truck stands as one of the most iconic but unpleasant in Aussie genre cinema), Fair Game is undeniably, unforgivably exploitative, but Cassandra Delaney’s Jessica is a wonderfully resourceful and sympathetic creation.

FORTRESS (1986) Though now best known for directing artful, keenly crafted films like Beautiful Kate and Palm Beach, Rachel Ward has a surprising history of fascinating genre and B-films on her resume, such as After Dark, My Sweet, Night School, Sharky’s Machine, and The Final Terror. One of the most interesting is undeniably 1986’s Fortress, in which Ward plays rural schoolteacher, Sally Jones, who turns formidable warrior when she and her students are kidnapped by a gang of masked criminals and held for ransom. With the threat of sexual violence constantly hanging in the air, and the masked men (one of whom is played by Mad Max 2 and Commando legend, Vernon Wells) revealing themselves to be increasingly deranged and ruthless, Sally realises that she must turn the tables and take the fight to them. Loosely based on the notorious Faraday School Kidnapping, and directed with a loopy kind of abandon by Arch Nicholson (Dark Age, Buddies), Fortress is a strange meld of childhood adventure, woman-in-peril and female revenge tropes. Side fact of note: one of the schoolkids is played by Sean Garlick, who would go on to play rugby league for the Roosters before founding the hugely successful Garlo’s Pies.

SHAME (1988) Director Steve Jodrell’s hard hitting though largely unheralded thriller Shame is one of the best local flicks of the eighties. Shot in Western Australia, this gritty, nasty and shockingly prescient low budgeter stars Deborra-Lee Furness in her best role ever as Perth lawyer Asta Cadell, who crashes her motorcycle near a Wake In Fright-style small town, where booze and thuggery rule, and the horridly macho culture flagrantly allows rape and violence against women. Drawn to help a young girl (a brilliant Simone Buchanan) who has been gang-raped, Asta unites the town’s women to question the abhorrent, wholly unpunished behaviour of the town’s men and boys. Decades before terms like “toxic masculinity” and “#metoo” were ever muttered, Shame is an angry, often horrific take-down of Australia’s blokey excesses, and Asta Cadell is a tough, brilliant, western-style heroine who fights for what’s right. Read much more about the film by clicking here.

DEAD CALM (1989) Brilliantly directed by hard-working Aussie and eventual Hollywood action man, Philip Noyce, 1989’s Dead Calm was a crackling thriller of the first order, with Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman unforgettably menaced by a deranged Billy Zane on a yacht in the middle of the ocean. Imaginatively conceived and hectically paced, the film was just as good as anything turned out by Hollywood, and was all done on a fraction of the budget afforded most US productions. The film was a massive hit in Australia, and not surprisingly functioned as a gilt-edged calling card for Noyce internationally, who went on to direct the likes of Patriot Games and Salt. With Neill and Kidman’s husband-and-wife characters eventually separated, the nucleus of the film is really Kidman’s heated physical and psychological struggle with Billy Zane’s madman, and the young actress’ Rae ends up as a brilliantly feisty and innovative survivalist.

JOURNEY AMONG WOMEN (1977) If ever a film was worthy of full-scale rediscovery (a well curated 2009 DVD release helped raise its profile), it’s this lost curio from the seventies. Directed by the always interesting but cruelly under-celebrated Tom Cowan (Sweet Dreamers, Orange Love Story), and largely improvised by its cast, Journey Among Women is a deeply feminist tale of survival in the Australian outback, and shares many similarities with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Set during the early colonial period, the film chronicles the regular abuse suffered by a group of female convicts at the hands of their male guards. The well-off Lady Elizabeth Harrington (Jeune Pritchard) is the daughter of a judge and engaged to marry Captain McEwan (Martin Phelan), but when she witnesses him raping one of the convicts, she throws in with the women, and helps them escape into the harsh Australian bushland. Pursued by the military, they partially revert to Lord Of The Flies-style savagery, and must fight relentlessly to survive.

RABBIT PROOF FENCE (2002) Using his prodigious gifts as a creator of highly accomplished commercial successes, Philip Noyce (the aforementioned Dead Calm, along with Sliver and The Bone Collector) made the explosive Rabbit-Proof Fence as exciting and accessible as it was timely. Following the extraordinary (based on fact) journey undertaken by three young Aboriginal girls caught up in the horrors of The Stolen Generation, the film was instantly engrossing, and worked from an emotional, rather than polemic, base. Tightly made and richly rewarding, Rabbit-Proof Fence speaks in universal terms about an important issue, while also going straight for the heart. While considerably different to the other films on this list, it is also essentially a tale of female survival, as its three young protagonists (wonderfully played by newcomers Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan) traverse miles and miles of the acrid Australian outback while being relentlessly pursued by the authorities.

TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN (2010) “It’s a coming of age story set against the extraordinary setting of a war zone,” director, Stuart Beattie, told FilmInk of his action adventure mini-epic, Tomorrow, When The War Began. “You grow up really quickly in the battlefield, which is great because drama is about extremes, and nothing is more extreme than war. It’s where you see the absolutes of good and evil in humans. It’s also an exciting place to see teenage characters growing up fast and having to rise to the occasion.” An adaptation of the first in the series of much loved Young Adult novels by author John Marsden, Tomorrow, When The War Began was the most hotly anticipated local film of 2010. While the hoped-for multi-film franchise about a group of teenagers fighting for survival in a future Australia in the grip of a military invasion never happened (it went to TV instead), this earnestly enjoyable drama was something of a rarity: an anticipated Aussie blockbuster. Also a rarity, the most enterprising and assured of the teenagers – and the one ostensibly leading the group – is Caitlin Stasey’s Ellie Linton, one of Australia’s best female “action heroes”. Read much more about the film by clicking here.

THE BABADOOK (2014) Richly evocative and haunting, Jennifer Kent’s extraordinary debut, The Babadook, focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), whose relationship with her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) has never warmed since her husband was killed in a car accident while racing her to the hospital to give birth. Into this already fraught emotional landscape comes the dark-hued children’s storybook, Mr. Babadook, the horrors of which soon become more and more tangible, as a strange new threat – which is taking hideous physical form, and becoming increasingly dangerous – is unleashed. It’s in the character of Amelia that The Babadook makes it boldest moves. Broken by the grief of her lost husband, and twisted by the role that the unborn Samuel played in his father’s death, Amelia occasionally recoils from her son’s touch, and often looks at him with feelings much more complicated than love in her eyes. In contemporary society, the subject of a mother who doesn’t love her child is close to taboo, and it’s a dark twist of irony that finds such a powerful theme driving a horror film. But that’s the brilliance of The Babadook: it’s much, much more than just an ingenious fright-fest, and Essie Davis’ Amelia is a far-from-typical mother fighting to survive and protect her child. Read much more about the film by clicking here.

The Nightingale is released in cinemas on August 29, 2019


  1. David Donaldson

    Great list. Cinema programmers please note. GU Film Houses especially.

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