DIRT MUSIC – Review by April Neale

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The film Dirt Music would have made a brilliant TV series, there is so much character and backstory to unpack. That is the biggest criticism for this epic love triangle set in the sweeping expanse of arid Western Australia. Placed in the right hands, it could have been the next Netflix hit potboiler — the Ozark of Australia.

The running time works against a satisfying reveal of the whys of the main character “Georgie,” played perfectly in a quiet restrained performance by Kelly Macdonald. Macdonald is a compelling, naturally beautiful, and introspective performer, and she brings her “A” game to this adaptation of the 2001 novel Dirt Music by Tim Winton, brought to the screen by director Gregor Jordan.

Georgie’s barely mentioned formative years and her overall nascent psychology are most intriguing, but we do not get enough of this aspect of her.

The story is as familiar as they come. The wrong man married for casually convenient reasons. Cue a mismatched relationship foundation crumbling under the weight of a poorly constructed marriage. Boatloads of money and scenic views cannot fix this tear-down.

That is where our Georgie girl is at, until she “cute meets’ a chained-up doggie with no name and his human, Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), whose own shroud of unhappiness and longing is catnip for the simpatico sea nymph who loves to swim nude at the worst times for shark attacks (Australia!). A match made in outsider heaven — or so it appears on the surface.

Behold the power of location and setting, as the Western Aussie outback is a character on its own. The remote, arid, dusty and isolated terrain is the glue that cements how utterly alone and lost Georgie and Lu both are, for entirely different reasons. This story would not be as resonant and ring as true if it were filmed in bustling Sydney.

As stated, the premise is familiar, a woman longing to belong to someone, perhaps a picture in her mind of what a proper family could be. A prominent commercial fisherman and widower bottled up emotionally and lost in his grief for the mother of his two sons as he looks for a wife to fill a void he aches to erase.

And a fetching and fit loner who lives at the edges of the fictitious township of White Point, their coastal village where he exists in the margins looking in, never truly part of the community. Just like the shunned and rebuffed Georgie who cannot get a smile or a break from the locals who adore her husband, the town kingpin who employs half of them.

There are major twists in Lu’s arc and what he does to survive and pay bills. They involve risky illegal poaching. The inherent dangers of his lifestyle coupled with unraveling the source of his grief and why he walked away from his music career is the mystery that Georgie puts her mind to in a bid to understand him.

Georgie is smart enough to know that her husband Jim (David Wenham) will never get over the loss of his previous wife Debbie, the mother to his two sons. He has weaponized that grief and anger unwittingly towards her and that trapped limbo-like feeling ignites and eventually fuels the romance she initiates with Lu.

Dirt Music gives us slight glimpses at the forces that drive Georgie, a daughter who observed a blithely cruel father who was careless with his love towards her mother, her mother’s own life of loneliness underscored by her shock death, left alone for 12 hours until her body was found.

And the fact that Georgie is a former nurse who sailed away from a proper vocation to a life adrift, literally, and figuratively is another question. Georgie is a ship without a rudder, aimlessly hoping to understand who she is and what elusive scenario will bring her a sense of home and happiness.

The film is ripe with interesting characters. We would love to know more about Lu’s fated niece, Bird (Ava Caryoffylis), her estranged sister, his brother, the mechanic who helps Georgie and offers advice at different times, the oddballs that cross paths with Lu in the north, and the entire Peyton Place township-like cast of characters in this seaside town bursting with secrets and enmity.

Overall, the film has a marveould look to it, and its familiar, heart wrenching story demonstrates the reverb of parental unkindness and sharp words and how that can unbalance the scales of what should have been a rewarding and fulfilling life for a child.

This is what we come to feel for Georgie, who would have likely been an entirely different and happier person with the right father to love and guide her. The fact that she is drawn to Lu and has physical chemistry with him does not mean the viewer will watch this film believing they were fated lovers meant to always be together, far from it. There is more story here, for shame the clock was against the storytellers.

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April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and television critic. Neale has read her work both on NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously written for various industry trades and entertainment websites. Neale has written for Monsters and Critics since 2003, and is an editor and main contributor to the TV, Film and Culture (formerly Lifestyle) sections.