112 mins, rated TBC, opens in cinemas 3 June 2010.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published in
the June 2010 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal).
Criminal life has been everywhere in the media recently. On television
we have had 3 series of Underbelly.
The first was set in Melbourne, dealing with the Carlton Crew and the
gangland wars of 1995-2004. The second was a “prequel”, set in Sydney,
Griffith and Asia, and dealt with the drug trade from 1976-1987. And
the third series was set in Sydney’s Kings Cross during the years
In April 2010, Australia was shocked when one of the Underbelly characters, real-life
criminal Carl Williams, died at the high-security Barwon Prison after
being bashed several times with part of an exercise bike. A few days
later, a fellow prisoner was charged with his murder. Now comes a
terrific new Australian crime film called Animal Kingdom.
But Animal Kingdom is no
sensationalised version of the criminal life. Although this story is
fictional, it is probably much closer to the reality of much of the
Melbourne crime scene. The film it most brings to mind is another
Aussie crime film that was roughly based on a true story: The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998).
Like that film, Animal Kingdom
is notable for its sombre vision and its excellent cast: Guy Pearce,
Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Jackie Weaver, Dan Wyllie and Anthony
Hayes (Hayes was also in The Boys).
That’s an impressive list. Newcomer James Frecheville is Joshua (‘J’)
Cody, our narrator and protagonist.
Animal Kingdom revolves
around a family of criminals, showing how easy it might be to drift
into a life of crime – if that was the daily routine of all those
The director, David Michôd, was at the screening I attended.
Despite the fact that Animal Kingdom
won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, he’s
clearly worried that Australians won’t go to see this, his first
feature film. He said: “We’re at the beginning of … the precarious
business of trying to get Australian audiences to see Australian films…
But Australians should go to see this film. Underbelly rates its head off. Will
the same people who watch that on TV go to the cinema to see a much
more intelligent treatment of the same kind of subject-matter? I hope
so, but I suspect not.
If they do go, they will be rewarded with an intelligent script, and a
gripping portrayal of Australian crime: how criminals work, how
detectives gather the evidence to trap them, and how criminals – and
their lawyers – make the best of the legal process.
Our narrator, J, is only 17, and not very mature or knowing. He goes
with the flow, even in this case, where the flow is perilous. But he’s
a strapping young boy – a man-child. So most people treat him like a
man, and don’t seem to realize that he needs protection and guidance.
The one person who understands this – but also uses it to his advantage
– is Guy Pearce’s character, Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie.
Most of the film, but particularly the last third, is devoted to the
cat-and-mouse game between the police and the Cody family, with J in
the middle. This last part of the film also introduces us to the
character Ezra White, the family’s lawyer. As played by Dan Wyllie (Love My Way, Underbelly), he’s
substantial enough to have his own film.
The one false note is the character of the barrister Justine Hopkins.
Lawyers will probably find themselves stifling cries of “I object” as
she coaches her client in his evidence, and asks him outrageously
leading questions. The charitable view might be that she is treating
the witness as hostile, but that’s unlikely. However, I did love the
fact when members of the Cody family have secret meetings with their
lawyers, they hold them “where no one would think we’d go” – the
National Gallery of Victoria!
David Michôd’s previous short film, Crossbow, won many Australian
awards, including an AFI award for best screenplay. I saw it at the
2007 Sydney Film Festival: it is a terrific little film about a young
boy living amidst a floating crowd of dope-smoking, tattooed,
suspicious-looking adults. Animal
Kingdom is Michôd’s next step towards what should be a
successful career as a film director. And we should all help him on his
way, by seeing Animal Kingdom.