Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – movie review

George Miller’s latest opus in the “extended Mad Max Universe [TM]” is Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. The film delivers two things Australian audiences love: fast cars and, um… Greek mythology (?). Yep, Miller takes a page from the likes of Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses’ Gaze) and the Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou) by adapting the ancient writings of Homer – notably The Odyssey but also bits of the Iliad – into a very different context*. Oh, and lots of petrol-powered muscle is on show too.

This is basically the origin story of Furiosa, the character introduced in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and played by Charlize Theron. Here, the titular character is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy. The story opens in the Green Place, the young Furiosa’s home (the character is played as a child by Alyla Browne). But a combination of risky choices and bad luck see Furiosa taken captive by the, well, demented Dementus (Chris Hemsworth – complete with prosthetic nose). And for good measure, Dementus kills her mother Mary (Charlee Fraser) in a gruesome scene heavy on Christian imagery (and guilt?). Kept by Dementus as basically a pet, Furiosa’s rage simmers under the surface. Then she gets the chance to escape thanks to Dementus’ ill-fated decision to attack The Citadel, stronghold of rival warlord Immortan Jack (Lachy Hulme). Once part of the Citadel community, Furiosa grows into a resourceful warrior, biding her time until she can manoeuvre a reckoning with Dementus.

This is a big movie. I mean, the clue is right there in the title – this is a “saga” – a point reinforced later in the film when one character asks another if they’re going to “make it epic”. Structured as five chapters, it runs a tick over two and a half hours. Miller and frequent collaborator Nick Lathouris have produced a script that transforms the Trojan Wars into the Wasteland Wars. Despite its setting in an indeterminately distant future and in the centre of Australia, the story has all the major hallmarks of Homer. Furiosa is the avatar of Odysseus, the wandering hero; Dementus is an amalgam of Achilles and Agamemnon; while Furiosa’s mentor Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke) is Hector and meets the same fate. There’s a Cyclops, a Trojan Horse and a Helen figure in Mary (who Furiosa describes as “the most beautiful woman in the world”). Dementus even gets around in a “chariot” pulled by three motorbikes.

As befits its epic source material, Miller paints his story in sweeping vistas and intense battles. The action sequences – of which there are many – certainly work in the moment, although I felt they got a bit repetitive by the end. The desert landscapes (mostly shot around Broken Hill) provide a spectacular backdrop to the action, and are stunningly captured by DOP Simon Duggan (Hacksaw Ridge). Miller, the consummate film technician, knows when to push the right button and his directorial control of the narrative can’t be faulted. He cleverly weaves in nods to both the original Mad Max (1979) and Fury Road.

That said, I found other aspects of the film less agreeable. Much of the dialogue consists of characters yelling at each other – either because they’re angry or because they’re trying to be heard over the roar of engines. That’s not helped by a bombastic score from Tom Holkenborg (Three Thousand Years of Longing). And the grungy design aesthetic becomes a bit monotonous after a while. But beyond the technical issues, I found the film had a very nasty edge, from the rampant misogyny of some characters to its preoccupation with torture and its utterly hopeless vision of the future.

Although the cast list is very long, Furiosa is really anchored around Anya Taylor-Joy (The Menu) as Furiosa and Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Love and Thunder) as Dementus. Taylor-Joy – very much a rising star of cinema – delivers a powerhouse performance. She might have been helped by the script which calls for her to be silent for long stretches. This means she has to act without dialogue, conveying emotion with her face and eyes. Playing very much against type, Hemsworth brings an aggressive physicality to his role, though his performance beyond the action sequences is hampered by some arch dialogue and the need to yell much of the time. He’s definitely at his best in the quieter early scenes when he can exude menace. Beyond them, the cast members flit in and out of the film. However Tom Burke (True Things) has some nice moments as Praetorian Jack; while Angus Sampson (Next Goal Wins) provides some welcome comic relief as Organic Mechanic. And it’s great to see veteran George Shevtsov – star of two of the great Australian films in Love Serenade and Dead Calm – pop up as soothsayer The History Man.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is certainly a sprawling, complex work from George Miller. Its intricate narrative and gripping action sequences complement each other nicely. While it probably doesn’t reach the heights of the fabulous Fury Road, it does enough to keep the now rather intermittent Mad Max franchise moving along. I just wish Miller had dialled back some of its more distasteful elements.

* For a more straightforward telling of the same story, see Troy (2004) starring Brad Pitt.

David Edwards

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