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The Sapphires Movie Review - -

The Sapphires

    Reviewed by Damien Straker on August 12, 2012
presents a film directed by Wayne Blair
    Screenplay by Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari
    Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell and Chris O'Dowd

    Running Time:
103 mins
    Rating: PG
    Released: August 9th, 2012


In the late 1960s, three Aboriginal sisters have grown up together on a mission in rural Australia. Two of the girls are Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and they look to attend a singing contest in town, while leaving their sister Julie (Jessica Mauboy) behind because she is too young. Despite the immediacy of racism against Aboriginal people in the town, the girls enter the contest and are met by Julie who manages to sneak away from their home. The girls are clearly talented and their gift for singing is recognised by Dave (Chris O'Dowd), a drunk who has a gig in the pub. He wants to manage the girls because he genuinely likes their voices but he encourages them to embrace soul music instead of country and western. Given Julie's age, Gail tries to find a replacement for her through their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), a child of the Stolen Generation, who grew up with white people. However, once the girls put aside all their differences they form their group 'The Sapphires' and Dave tells them about their biggest gig: travelling to Vietnam, during the war, so that they can entertain the troops.

The Sapphires is determined to be liked. It has a great sense of humour, bright, luminous visuals and entertaining songs. It is a pleasant film but it left me asking, where is the grit? With each year, the Hollywood blockbusters eclipse the local Australian films in such a way that it is impossible to compete with the superior marketing campaigns and this industries most lethal weapon: hype. As the local film industry here seeks to remain competitive, there will be an increasing divergence between filmmakers competing for funding for grittier art house projects and accessible, crowd-pleasers that are more financially viable but less emotionally challenging. Selina Kyle was right after all: there's a storm coming. As delightful as it is, The Sapphires foreshadow this movement. Its sense of humour and likeability comes at the expense of the idiosyncratic trait that Australian films have of balancing funny moments with unflinching moments of pain and anguish. Traditionally, local films here have an uncompromised freedom of expression because they liberated from the grip of a studio system, which see filmmakers reach harder and deeper at expressing life's wounds. However, intending to have international success, as much as local interest, sees that level of autonomy quickly dissolve in the name of accessibility. The director of The Sapphires was Wayne Blair, who starred in the 2005 stage play, written by Tony Briggs, who was retelling his own family's story. Pairing as a writer-director partnership, they offer strong knowledge about the source material. But they also opted to be supported internationally with the financial backing of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who are two of the most powerful and influential producers in Hollywood. They're billed as executive producers on the film and snapped up the international rights following its positive reception in Cannes. Arguably, if it had been a tougher and less accessible film it would have been harder to sell globally. That is the price that is paid for global recognition and a dilemma that continues to haunt local filmmakers who are seeking to have their work recognised abroad.

The film itself is charming and funny but offers few surprises. Lessons about culture, self-understanding and romance are learnt and fame is an elusive dream of a better life. The deepest the film becomes is when it touches on the Stolen Generation, though the scarcity of this theme reduces it to a broader and universal idea of learning to love who you really are. There are also some awkward structural lapses in the story's timeline too. The girls have one audition before being sent overseas and Dave's verbal commitment to the girls seems premature in the context of the story. I found that once the girls reached Saigon, the war zone felt too muted and insulated. The girls sing to the wounded and there is an attack scene that feels oddly detached from the rest of the movie. I would have liked a more palpable sense of danger and a more overarching look at some of the atrocities that would no doubt have affected the girls. The music should come as a form of relief from the conflict, but it should never overshadow the terrible acts of indecency from both sides of the war. I couldn't help but think of Suzie Q scene from Apocalypse Now (1979), where playboy bunnies are swarmed upon by sex crazed marines. It is a large scaled scene but not an especially graphic one. It speaks volumes about the kind of barbarism and tension that the war sparked in people. This film could have used more danger like that but it's simply content with being pleasant. It exists for the music and personality and solely on that level it exceeds. The script is loaded with sharp lines and they're delivered perfectly by the charismatic leads. Chris O'Dowd, the lone survivor from the abhorrent Bridesmaids (2011), is wonderfully self-depreciative and silly, as a man who finds new meaning in his life through the most unlikely pairing. He has so many of the film's hilarious lines and his chemistry with Mailman's Gail is electric. It is through their relationship that her character has to learn to reign in her outspoken and overly protective nature. Her maturity and her sense of personal expression drastically elevates the film's entertainment levels. The comedy and the central relationship carry the film a long way and I laughed frequently because the script does have genuine wit. That is something to be applauded. I just wish their performances could have been challenged with a few more bumps in the road. We all like to be happy at the movies but isn't overcoming great adversity and being able to laugh about it afterwards the most satisfying form of entertainment?


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