Director: Wayne Blair
Starring: Miranda Tapsell, Gwilym Lee, Kerry Fox, Huw Higginson, Shari Sebbens, Elaine Crombie, Dalara Williams, Ursula Yovich
After decades of being excluded or pushed to the periphery of Australian cinema, it is fair to say that in the last decade Indigenous filmmakers have been responsible for much of the most interesting Australian screen product. In addition to the emergence of a golden generation of indigenous filmmakers, an important element of this rise in prominence is what Therese Davis described as the conscious ‘mainstreaming’ of indigenous cinema. Over the last decade, Indigenous screen storytelling has moved away from hard-hitting social realism to embrace genre as a means of exploring Indigenous themes and narratives. We have seen successful musicals (The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae), westerns (Sweet Country) and crime dramas (Mystery Road and Goldstone), but Wayne Blair’s Top End Wedding might be the first indigenous romantic comedy.
When Adelaide lawyer Lauren (Miranda Tapsell) and her British boyfriend Ned (Gwilym Lee) get engaged, she is adamant that they be married in Darwin where she grew up. But having just been promoted to associate at her firm, her demanding boss Ms. Hampton (Kerry Fox) is only willing to part with her for ten days. So the race is on to get to Darwin and organise a wedding. However, upon arriving in Darwin, Lauren finds that her mother (Ursula Yovich) has literally walked out on her father (Huw Higginson) and noone knows where she is. So Lauren and Ned must follow her trail across the Northern Territory in the hope that they can find her in time for the wedding.
The romantic comedy is not the box office staple that it once was. Those rom-coms which have managed to make an impact over the last few years – Crazy Rich Asians, The Big Sick, Trainwreck – have tended to defy conventions in some way rather than playing it straight, coming at the genre from a different perspective. Top End Wedding aspires to being such a film, combining the generic form of the rom-com with an exploration of indigenous identity. However, the end result lacks unity. Instead of an organic combination, it feels at times like two separate movies playing out concurrently, struggling for screen time. One perfunctory and generic. The other heartfelt and necessary.
The first of these movies is the largely inoffensive, straight-up-and-down romantic comedy. While Lauren and Ned are an engaging couple and the Northern Territory locations stunning and unique, the plot is overly dependent on a series of narrative contrivances: the unnecessary rush to get married within ten days, the organising of the wedding being left in the hands of the bridesmaids and Lauren’s hapless father, the conflict that emerges because Ned has quit his job and has not told Lauren. However, while many of the rom-com beats we encounter in the first two acts feel simple and familiar, you forgive them because their function is clearly to get us to the other movie.
This second movie is where the real heart of Top End Wedding lies, and it therefore becomes the primary focus by the third act. This movie is a cross-generational story about the desire to reconnect with family and culture, and the importance of returning to country. It is about a mother whose decision to run away when she was a young woman has been simultaneously the best and worst thing she ever did. It is about a daughter who has always felt disconnected from her culture, her land and her language as the result of decisions her mother made before she was even born. These stories give substance to the otherwise goofy rom-com, road narrative that drives the film.
With their journey taking them from Darwin to Kakadu to Katherine and ultimately to the Tiwi Islands, Top End Wedding captures the remarkable landscape of the Northern Territory in all its glory, with Blair and his cinematographer Eric Murray Lui not above indulging in moments of landscape appreciation. It is no surprise to learn that the Northern Territory government chipped in $1.5m towards the film’s production, as the film serves as a pretty effective tourism pitch.
Even more so than the stunning scenery, though, Top End Wedding’s trump card is Miranda Tapsell. When she won the Logie for Best New Talent in 2015, Tapsell used her acceptance speech to call for more roles for people of colour on Australian screens. Here, she has taken things into her own hands, co-writing the screenplay with Joshua Tyler. In the process, seven years after bursting onto the scene in The Sapphires (which Blair also directed), she has handed herself her first leading role. And it will not be her last, as this pocket rocket proves herself to be a delightfully engaging screen presence. She has solid chemistry with British actor Gwilym Lee. A virtual unknown when he signed on for the role, the Top End team got lucky when Bohemian Rhapsody, in which he plays guitarist Brian May, became an international sensation, giving him slightly more profile to draw on.
Top End Wedding doesn’t reach the heights of The Sapphires, nor does it reimagine the romantic comedy genre in any significant way. But, on the back of the magnetic Tapsell and glorious Northern Territory landscape, it is a gentle, enjoyable crowd pleaser which, when it reaches its destination, is quite affecting.
Review by Duncan McLean
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