The films of Peter Weir (1974 – 2010)
Peter Weir’s career is an enigma. He has huge reserves of talent, and we absolve him of all sins thanks to Picnic alone, but there are pockets of emptiness in many of his films, all of which are watchable (OK, maybe not Green Card). (As Norman Gunston might have asked, “13 films in 40 years, Peter? What do you do for a living?“) With the once respected Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences giving Peter a career-end-Oscar at its Governor’s Awards late last year), we review his oeuvre.
1974 The Cars That Ate Paris: known in the US (bizarrely), as The Cars That Eat People). As we said in our review of Best Australian Films, “It gives “Mo-Town” a whole new meaning. No-one got this when it came out, a jet-black comedy of mythic, small-town, country-dark Australia.”
1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock: the ne plus ultra. Peter’s Masterpiece.
1977 The Last Wave: Water, water everywhere, and plague frogs, and so on. Weir’s film somehow manages to be interesting and vacuous. It will have a revival, no doubt, in view of our apocalyptic climateric.
1981 Gallipoli: a very impressive piece, a sort-of coming-of-age war film, in which young Australians go off to see the world and find it surprisingly nasty.
1982 The Year of Living Dangerously: Dripping with atmosphere but dry of coherence. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver make goo goo eyes while various ‘types’ (e.g. Noel Ferrier) swan by. A good turn by Linda Hunt as a socialist dwarf.
1985 Witness: A fine but not wholly satisfactory work, an unrequited romance posing as a thriller. Nicely shot with a tinge of authenticity; good performances help the juxtaposition of high-crime Philly and the Amish barns and backroads of Pennsylvania.
1986 The Mosquito Coast: Harrison Ford quits the creaking, broken old US of A, and takes the family south where he can lord it over the natives. Fitzcarraldo it ain’t, but well worth a look.
1989 Dead Poets Society: All of Pete’s hallmarks are at Welton Academy: Beautiful scenery, Doomed Youth, Oppressive Tradition…Weir’s film has it all, except for subtlety or credibility.*
1990 Green Card: Ugh. We like the piano scene though.
1993 Fearless: (In 2007, a Garuda plane crashed and burned at Yogjakarta airport, killing 21 people. Passenger Kyle Quinlan not only helped several passengers and crew to safety, he returned to the burning wreckage to help some more. Quinlan remained humble, normal, and cheery.) In Fearless, Weir’s brilliantly shot and very moving film of a fictional air disaster, the hero, Max, is, unfortunately, not Australian, but a Californian. Thus his post-traumatic demeanour is an astral, infantile, narcissistic, insufferable display of petulance and arrogance. That is the essence of the problem at the film’s heart, despite Weir’s undoubted skill and very good performances by Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez, and an amusing turn by Tom Hulce as an ambulance chaser.
1998 The Truman Show: Pete’s most commercially successful film is clever yet sad, synthetic yet warm, hokey but prescient.
2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: Pete’s best later film. While, once again, we get Beautiful scenery, Doomed Youth, Oppressive Tradition, there is also magnificent swashbuckling, big performances, terrific action, and a highly intelligent script. We should have had a sequel.
2010 The Way Back: A beautifully photographed (by Russell Boyd) account of a group of POWs escaping from the Gulag and trekking 4,000 miles to India, via Mongolia (Gobi desert), China, and Nepal. Bleak and grim, it’s a meld of the earlier “Lawrence of Arabia” and the later “The Grey.” Weir throws snow, ice, wolves, midges, desert, mosquitos, hunger and thirst at his excellent cast, and drenches the overall production with his trademark vibrant sentimentality. The anti-Stalinist theme jarred at the time of release with the more rose-coloured view of Putin’s Russia, and hence the film sank without trace. But if it is a coda to an honourable career, it is a worthy one.
*We have to say, we prefer the ‘iconic’ ending of Dead Poets Society better when done by Saturday Night Live:
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