Charlie's Country

5 August 2014 Film

Charlie's Country

Making his film debut at age 16 in Walkabout (1971), David Gulpilil quickly announced himself as one of the greatest Australian actors of his generation. He became a lodestar for the representation of Indigenous identities on film. Now 60 years old, and after a few rough years and intermittent absences from the screen, Gulpilil is still an exquisite performer.

In his new film Charlie’s Country – co-written with director Rolf de Heer, who he worked with on The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) – Gulpilil plays Charlie, an ageing tracker and ex-dancer trying to get by in his remote community of Ramingining in northeast Arnhem Land.

Charlie still retains the elegant, upright carriage of a dancer. But his large hands are gnarled with age, and his slender frame is dangerously thin: Charlie is close to starving. The local shop serves mostly deep-fried, high-sugar goods – food that Charlie detests – and his repeated efforts to go hunting are stymied by the local police.

First his gun is confiscated, along with a slain buffalo. Then a newly carved spear is taken as well. Faced with the insoluble contradictions of life under the Northern Territory intervention, Charlie attempts to take off into the bush and live the old way, and ends up on a journey that sweeps him away from his country.

In his press notes for the film, de Heer writes that he conceived the project as a lifeline for Gulpilil, who had left his community after a tribal dispute. The actor subsequently had problems with alcohol and addiction – a struggle that eventually landed him in prison in 2011. While visiting him in a Darwin jail, de Heer and Gulpilil began planning out a script that hewed closely to Gulpilil’s life.

Sometimes the film is downright funny – no more so than when Charlie plays tricks onthe local police – and Gulpilil’s energy is infectious. But the co-writers have laid out a troubled path for Charlie, and when the heavy hand of the government turns from inconvenient to humiliating, Gulpilil nimbly switches from boyish cheek to weary old age.

Frequently alone on screen, Gulpilil effortlessly steers the narrative through comedy and tragedy, using only the silent expressiveness of his body. The result is a film that rests squarely on its lead actor’s shoulders, and he won a well-deserved Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his efforts. Charlie’s Country is a gift for both actor and audiences.

>> Charlie's Country is out now.

James Douglas