Dir: Craig Lahiff. Australia/UK. 2002. 99mins.
The Sydney Film Festival traditionally opens with the world premiere of a quality Australian feature: last year it was the free-flowing, cinematically intense Lantana. This year's opener was an altogether more stolid affair - the worthy dramatisation of a 1958 South Australian murder trial and its racist ramifications which fed several appeals, an appearance before the Privy Council in London, a Royal Commission and the first flexing of populist muscles by a young Adelaide newspaper owner named Rupert Murdoch. With a producer credit for influential Briton Nik Powell, Black And White has reliable British actors Robert Carlyle and Charles Dance as opposing lawyers, and a supporting cast of impressively weighty Australian actors, so should attract arthouse attention in both countries: prospects elsewhere however seem limited. Though exhaustively researched and carefully reconstructed, the script lacks dramatic life and the presentation of its many courtroom scenes is entirely conventional. The film is not due for release in the UK or Australia before the end of the year.
Pre-1960s Australia - as recent films tirelessly remind us - was a highly conservative and racist stronghold. No surprise, then, that when itinerant Aboriginal Max (Ngoombujarra) is arrested on random suspicion of murdering an eight-year-old white girl outside a near-desert township, he's soon confronted with corrupt cops, sneering prosecutors and smug judges who shout 'rubbish!' when defence counsel makes a point. Assigned struggling lawyer O'Sullivan (the keen, whippet-thin Carlyle), Max's future looks pre-destined, especially when judges at the first trial and appeal outrageously ignore the fact that Max's illiteracy and poor grasp of English must render his 'signed confession' as, at the very least, unlikely.
As the appeals mount - Max is reprieved from the scaffold a monstrous seven times - so the unpaid O'Sullivan is stretched to his limits, along with his courtroom enemy, the supercilious Crown Prosecutor (an over-smirking Dance). The respectful, repetitive narrative is given a welcome injection of energy by the arrival of sleek newspaper proprietor Murdoch (the excellent Mendelsohn) who sees a chance to whip up public indignation against the ruling classes, especially the far-away English.
Louis Nowra's screenplay offers no room for doubt about poor Max's innocence, so our only reaction is to scorn the wretched, blatant prejudice of everybody concerned. The exceptions are the "abo-loving duo", O'Sullivan and his sassy assistant Helen (Fox), who, even if research didn't confirm it, are not allowed a relationship to keep them, and us, more interested. Sometimes, facts alone are not enough.
Prod co: Duo Art/Scala
Aust dist: NewVision Film Distributors
Int sales: Svensk Filmindustri
Prods: Helen Leake, Nik Powell
Scr: Louis Nowra
Cinematographer: Geoffrey Simpson
Prod des: Murray Picknett
Ed: Lee Smith
Main cast: Robert Carlyle, Charles Dance, Kerry Fox, David Ngoombujarra, Colin Friels, Ben Mendelsohn