There’s so much potential in Gregor Jordan’s “Dirt Music.” First, there’s the source material, Tim Winton’s Booker Prize-shortlisted 2002 novel of the same name. (It was awarded the highest accolade for Australian literature, the Miles Franklin Award, and is here adapted by the experienced screenwriter Jack Thorne.) Then there’s the two vastly underrated and enormously talented stars, Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald and American star Garrett Hedlund. There’s the stunning setting, on the coast of Western Australia near Perth, which is captured gorgeously by cinematographer Sam Chiplin (with underwater photography shot by Rick Rifici).
The first 30 minutes or so of “Dirt Music” are a mysterious thrill. Macdonald is Georgie, the younger girlfriend of a well-known local fisherman, Jim (David Wenham). She has a penchant for pre-dawn ocean swims, morning wine and afternoon naps. Mostly ignored and judged by Jim, she casts her eye toward a poacher she spots in the bay in the early mornings, Lu (Hedlund). Both Macdonald and Hedlund are bronzed, sinewy, at the peak of sun-drenched beauty. When they fall into bed after some doublespeak about “buying a beer,” it’s tremendously exciting.
But then the film just sort of stalls out in a rotation of meaningful looks and tearful whispers and gazing at ocean vistas. Lu has a recently tragic past, and the memories of his loss haunt him, audibly and visibly nearly constantly, in visions of his brother, sister-in-law and niece singing bluegrass music in their family band. In their small town, Lu and Jim are bound by Georgie, but also by layers of tragedy that are slowly revealed. When it all becomes too much, Lu takes off for a remote island, running away from his past, his memories, from Georgie and Jim, into a punishing wilderness.
At first, there’s a certain charm to the rather taciturn script, in which the characters talk around each other rather than to each other. Georgie and Jim are never direct, so when she meets Lu and he’s rather forthright, it’s a refreshing change of pace, even though Georgie still struggles to be upfront. In fact, much of the issue with the film is that Georgie is not an easy character to get inside. She’s self-destructive with sex and booze; her main coping mechanism is plunging into bodies of water. But she rarely says exactly what she’s thinking. Or when she does, it seems too little too late. The script is frustratingly abstruse at times.
The film undeniably captures the breathtaking and uncommon landscape of coastal Western Australia. It’s an incredibly beautiful film, but it’s a challenge to emotionally connect to it. It feels like the outline of what would have been an epic novel, but in the translation to the screen, it has lost its interiority, and anything profound it might have communicated. In 2009, legendary Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) was attached to adapt the novel, but by 2014, he admitted in an interview, “I could never get a script that I thought captured the poetry of the novel, and there’s the problem. A poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie.” Therein seems to be the problem. There’s something deeply lacking about this screen version of “Dirt Music,” and ultimately, all that potential is sadly squandered.
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