Just stop for a moment and consider that Australia’s national holiday is the only one in the world that celebrates the imposition of colonialism. What that means for those who were here first is often the subject of spirited debate. In an age of 24-hour news cycles and social media echo chambers, the real issues get lost in the clamour. So when a film comes along that tries to deal with the impact of European settlement in a powerful and insightful way, it deserves attention. Which brings us to Stephen Johnson’s High Ground.
This stylish film eschews platitudes in favour of a gripping drama in the tradition of old Westerns. Johnson is however clever enough not to serve up a simple binary scenario. While he definitely introduces “good guys” and “bad guys”, he also blends in some shades of grey to blur the line between heroes and villains.
The film opens with a scene of brutal violence in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land. Territorial troops massacre a band of Aboriginal people. The event shocks recently returned World War I veteran Travis (Simon Baker). He decides a life in the service of the Crown isn’t for him, and becomes a wandering bushman. But one young child survives the terrible events of that day. Cut to 1931 and that child is now a young man. Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) has been living in a nearby mission, raised by Claire (Caren Pistorius) a well-meaning pastor’s wife. But the arrival of the pompous District Inspector Moran (Jack Thompson) and his steely-eyed deputy Eddy (Callan Mulvey) upset the relative calm of the mission.
Moran has issued orders to track down Baywara (Sean Mununggurr); known as the most dangerous warrior in the Territory. It seems Baywara and his allies have attacked a cattle station. Gutjuk soon realises that if Baywara – who’s his uncle – escapes, the repercussions for the rest of his family could be dire. So he somewhat reluctantly teams up with Travis to try to bring Baywara in peacefully. Travis and Gutjuk set out to find Baywara, but Eddy has other ideas and is soon on their tail.
High Ground marks Johnson’s return to feature filmmaking after a nearly 20-year hiatus following Yolngu Boy (2001). He works here from a script by Chris Anastassiades. They deliver the film’s central message – that violence begets violence – eloquently. Along they way, they delve into Australia’s troubled relationship with indigenous people through the microcosm of this skirmish in what have come to be known as the Frontier Wars. So if you’re thinking this isn’t exactly a light-hearted romp, you’d be right. But it’s definitely a film to be experienced, rather than merely watched.
Simon Baker (who also serves as an executive producer on the film) gives a sympathetic performance as the ethically troubled Travis. Jacob Junior Nayinggul matches him stride-for-stride as the equally torn Gutjuk. The stuff-shirt Moran almost becomes a caricature, but Jack Thompson’s (Never Too Late) consummately professional performance brings him back from the brink. Callan Mulvey recently played the bad guy role in Mystery Road (season 2) and carries on in similar vein as the ruthless Eddy. Sean Mununggurr provides Eddy’s counterpoint as the fiercely proud but reckless Baywara.
High Ground sets an early benchmark for Australian cinema in 2021. This isn’t an easy film, but it’s an important one. If you care even a little about Australia and its history, you should make an effort to see it.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television