Storm Boy

January 18, 2019
A boy and his pelican

Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy is a slender novel that has plucked Australian heartstrings ever since it was released in 1964. The first screen adaptation came along in 1976, and has proven to be no less enduring than the book. Directed by Henri Safran, who made only a handful of feature films but numerous TV programs, Storm Boy is one of those movies everyone seems to remember.

The star of the show was a pelican called Mr. Percival, but all the main actors put in memorable performances, especially David Guliplil, who was already a cult figure in Australian cinema. (He has a small cameo in the new film). There was also an unusual soundtrack by Michael Carlos, which created mood with a discreet use of strings. It was a lyrical, atmospheric, coming-of-age story in an era when Australian filmmakers were probing the edges of the national psyche, pitting sensitivity against vulgarity, innocence against experience.

Given the popularity of the earlier film it’s a daunting task to make a new Storm Boy. Like Safran, director Shawn Seet has spent most of his career in television, as has scriptwriter, Justin Monjo. As one can see with Garth Davis’s transition from the small to big screen with Lion, TV is not an ideal preparation for would-be directors of feature films. It confers a certain fluency but tends to breed tradesmen rather than artists.

True-to-type, the new Storm Boy is a watchable but uninspired affair that relies heavily on the pelican factor. Seet’s big innovation is to create a story within a story, with the elderly Michael Kingley (Geoffrey Rush) recalling his childhood in the Coorong for the benefit of his teenage granddaughter, Maddie (Morgana Davies).

Rush should have been a drawcard for this film but his court battles over sexual misconduct allegations have created an unwelcome distraction. One imagines some viewers wondering whether it’s safe to leave young Maddie alone with granddad, but for the sake of the movie the media mayhem must be ignored.

It’s surprising to find that the older Michael is now the patriarch of a mining company embroiled in a dispute over native title lands in the Pilbara. His son, Malcolm (Erik Thomson) is eager to conclude a lucrative but controversial deal, while Maddie – a passionate environmentalist – is vowing never to speak to her father again. It’s left to Michael to sort out the familial and corporate traumas, even though he initially seems too world-weary to care.

It takes a storm and a broken window in the boardroom to snap Michael out of his stupor. Suddenly he’s seeing pelicans in the same way that people in horror movies see dead people – although it would be a little peculiar to face the camera with a glazed stare and say “I see dead pelicans”. As the environmentally-friendly days of childhood come flooding back we know, with mind-numbing certainty, that by the end of the film Michael won’t be voting in favour of the deal.

Suspense having been taken out of the equation, we are left to concentrate on the extended flashbacks that pick up Colin Thiele’s tale. Once again we find ourselves on that lonely beach with young Mike (Finn Little) and his sullen father, Hide-away Tom. Jai Courtney puts in a solid performance but he seems an unlikely hermit in comparison to Peter Cummins in the Safran film.

Trevor Jamieson plays Fingerbone, the Aboriginal outcast who befriends young Mike. Jamieson wisely makes no attempt to recreate Gulpilil’s performance, being much older and less fiery in temperament. Unlike the character in the book and the first film, this Fingerbone doesn’t go around shooting a gun at his enemies. In this day and age only bad guys, such as the hunters, may be shown carrying firearms.

For many viewers the chief attraction of this movie will be the pelicans which absorb an even greater slice of the story. Now we get detailed accounts of how they are fed, how they grow, and how they learn to fly. The pelican wranglers or pelican whisperers have been working over-time.

Eventually Mr. Percival distinguishes himself from his two brothers, being as faithful as any hound, and possessed of supernatural intelligence. David Attenborough should be notified at once.

The revamped version of the story has a few novel twists but is just as predictable as its predecessor. Although Seet’s movie is visually impressive, as a narrative it manages to overstate every scenario, leaving little to the imagination. The opportunity for an uplifting ending is transferred to the present, allowing Rush to come over all wise and benevolent, having been revived by his glimpse of the paradis perdu of childhood.

The environmentalist theme is such an obvious attempt to engage the sensibilities of a young audience that it has a deadening effect on the depiction of 11-year-old Mike and his discovery of the world. There’s a fragility about this childhood spent on the beach; about a boy’s fraught but loving attachment to his father, and his companionship with Fingerbone, who is as much a force of nature as Mr. Percival.

For the viewer the path to nature should lie with the Wordsworthian growth of Mike’s inner life, not with an abstract concept called “conservation”. As this new Storm Boy shows, nowadays it seems much easier to love nature in theory than to embrace it with heart and soul.

Storm Boy
Directed by Shawn Seet
Written by Justin Monjo, after a novel by Colin Thiele
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Jai Courtney, Finn Little, Trevor Jamieson, Morgana Davies, Erik Thomson
Australia, rated PG, 99 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 January, 2019