With only five minutes of screen time and two minutes of dialogue, David Gulpilil delivers a powerful performance in Goldstone. When he first appears on screen, Gulpilil sits in a chair out on the dirt. Silent. Poised. Focused. Dapper in black cowboy hat and red shirt buttoned up to his chin to frame his face.
Can a face grow into a landscape? Gulpilil’s face is a vortex that draws energy to it, as director Ivan Sen’s camera lingers. As Sen told me in an interview earlier this year, “I don’t gloss past the performance”. He says he gives his actors the time to do what they do, and this is what allows it to be felt by the audience.
Gulpilil has performed many roles before that show the range and subtlety of his skills as an actor – most notably perhaps in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) and Tracker (2002) – but there is something different in this performance. In the role of a hold-out against a land-grab by a mining company, Gulpilil seems to be more in and with himself than in any other role. What is it that he is actually performing?
For much of his role, Gulpilil is filmed in long shot – at a distance – a lean, lithe body poised like a coiled spring, energy rigorously held. His vigilant, silent presence is as enigmatic as it is powerful: a life-presence, a way of being in the world that is radically outside the ken of most Australians. In his only dialogue scene, that energy breaks out into a live-wire vigour and humour. Is it the way Sen’s camera delivers the performance, giving us time to soak into its gravity, that makes it resonate so strongly?
In Goldstone, even the brief presence of Gulpilil on screen reverberates throughout the film. No mean feat in a superbly cast film that boasts a raft of iconic actors: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, Tom E. Lewis, Cheng Pei Pei …
The craft of silence
Since his first feature, Beneath Clouds (2002), writer-director Ivan Sen has honed his craft to pare back dialogue and let the silences play out. In Toomelah (2011) and Mystery Road (2013), this allowed him to concentrate the performances in non-verbal registers, allowing the “invisible something” – what theatre critic Eugenio Barba calls “the actor’s sub-score” – to resonate in them.
In Mystery Road, the precursor to Goldstone, this strategy gave actor Aaron Pedersen – as Aboriginal detective Jay Swan – the freedom to perform more with his face, eyes and body, and allowed the director to explore the nuances and complexity of a taut, layered script without spelling out what echoes in the silences.
Rather than a sequel to Mystery Road, Sen describes Goldstone as a “spin-off” that explores another dimension of the character of Swan. All of the energy and alienation contained so rigidly in Pedersen’s earlier bodily performance as Swan is unravelling, in a character whose spine seems to have become unshackled from its moorings. In Goldstone, Pedersen’s character has only about twenty lines of dialogue.
There is no filmmaker working in Australia today who is more adept at touching the raw nerves of Australian culture than Sen. Goldstone pits Swan against the corrosive influence of the mining industry, with its voracious appetite for land and its insidious manipulation of an Aboriginal land council. Pedersen is paired up with a white cop, played by Alex Russell – an ingénue helplessly entangled in a hard, hard world.
Just as in Mystery Road, Goldstone works with non-verbal performance to stir up the nuances of the ruthless politics of land. Sen has a knack for scripting dialogues that layer the words with irony and contradiction. He works with the friction between the line and the way it is performed so that the lines carry all the insinuations that lurk underneath familiar public discourse, their residue like reverb on a guitar.
The mining executive – David Wenham – at a ceremony to sign over the land:
We hold our hands out to work together on this new pathway of improvement …
All greasy hair, tight schoolboy shorts and long socks in a role closed in on itself, that makes his body and his character a fish out of water.
As the boss of the local Land Council, Tom E. Lewis’ capacity to deliver a disingenuous line with the slightest flicker of a smirk twists his lines like a spin-ball, freighting the words with corruption.
In Jacki Weaver’s rendition of the local mayor, the slightest inflection of her eye muscles sets a play of emotion and mood ricocheting around her face in unnerving Machiavellian undercurrents, her eyes “as hard as that trampled-on, dried-out earth [she] grew up on”.
There are many aspects of both script and performance in Goldstone that will directly connect with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences, possibly in different ways. Aaron Pedersen said, in a 2013 interview with Emmet O'Cuana, that with Mystery Road their first aim was to make a film that,
our own people could connect to and be proud of but to also appeal to a broader Australian and international audience.
The dexterity it takes to make a film that can speak to such a heterogeneous audience on different levels is a challenge that barely rates a mention in much discussion of Australian cinema, with its frequent pandering to a putative common denominator.
Goldstone doesn’t just explore the subterranean ruthlessness of this black-white interface. As Sen has said in an interview, both cultures have been engaging with Chinese people for the last two hundred years, particularly around the mining industry.
Goldstone moves across these three cultures, exploring how they meet, taking on the challenge “to try to fit all the elements together and to integrate different points of view and cultures”. An opening montage of stunning old photos casts the film into an epic historical frame, in the context of this three-way cultural encounter.
Goldstone stages this narrative in a way that can connect with a culturally diverse audience. As Sen told me, it’s very rare for an Australian filmmaker to make a film that directly addresses a Chinese audience. After several years living in China, he’s ideally placed to explore this interface.
Sen casts legendary Hong Kong action star Cheng Pei Pei as the madam of the local brothel, alongside a group of talented young Chinese and Korean actors. He says that Chinese audiences will be drawn into the Chinese element. This is a smart strategic move in the ever-present struggle to maintain a financially viable Australian cinema.
Genre films with ‘something to say’
Sen spoke at a symposium at the University of Canberra last year of his aim to bring together art-house with more commercial genre cinema; to work with genre to achieve box-office success but to “keep the same resonance as Mystery Road.” His long-term goal is to “make genre films that have something to say.”
Sen told O'Cuana that he thinks any genre film with a lead Indigenous character will by definition transform the genre:
That Indigenous character is going to bring a unique perspective, which the genre hasn’t had before.
Goldstone is an action thriller that has more genre elements than Mystery Road: as Sen said at the Canberra symposium, the pace is much quicker but he has worked at “not rushing the dramatic moments”. He says that everything – all the action, the dialogues, the camera and the sounds – has to be:
tuned in the one key like music […] the action has to work on many levels […] not pressing notes that are not in that key.
Asked to search for an example of a filmmaker who achieves this blend of art-house and commercially successfully genre, Sen says that perhaps the best model would be,
if you could cross someone like Terrence Malick [Tree of Life (2011), Thin Red Line (1998)] with Christopher Nolan [The Dark Knight (2008); Interstellar (2014)], but it is actually Terrence Malick that is driving the soul of it.
The director’s background as a musician and his early training as a photographer are pivotal to his ability to make the kind of artistic genre films he aspires to. In addition to writing and directing the film, Sen also composed the score, which he recorded with a 34-piece orchestra, and he is credited as the director of photography and editor.
The stunning cinematography, much of it shot with a drone-mounted camera, brings out the gravitas of the magnificent ancient land around Winton in south-western Queensland, rarely seen as it is locked up in cattle stations.
In a very economically challenging film industry, Sen’s track record, as a prolific filmmaker who has been able to keep making successful films that challenge viewers both culturally and cinematically, positions him as one of the most significant contemporary Australian filmmakers. His films are at the forefront of not only Australian cinema but also innovative cinema on the world stage.
As a director, Ivan Sen’s work is as significant to forging a new Australian cinema as the work of David Gulpilil has been over the last forty years.
Goldstone opens Sydney Film Festival on 8 June – the film’s world premiere – and is scheduled to be released in Australian cinemas on 7 July.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank John von Sturmer for his generous critical reading of this article.