As an unabashed fan of Australian cinema, it is with confidence that I can say that our local industry struggles when it comes to comedy. We do have our occasional bullseyes and every once in a while we strike gold with international audiences, but for every hit there are a dozen misses and those that fail tend to be those that celebrate ockerisms. Whereas, on the other hand, those that succeed are those that celebrate our sense of belonging. Crocodile Dundee, The Castle, Muriel’s Wedding and Kenny are glowing examples of films that are uniquely Aussie with a strong sense of home and self-worth at the core. Amongst the hijinks and frivolity of their stories are sincere, likeable and unapologetic characters with whom the audience can relate.
The other key ingredient for most Australian films to succeed outside of our shores is international talent. It’s a golden rule that applies to all genres and we’ve seen countless foreign stars light up our screens; Josh Lucas in Red Dog, Terrance Stamp in Priscilla, John Goodman in Dirty Deeds and Patrick Warburton in The Dish, to name but a few. The list is endless and Aussies share a common pride when we see big-wigs from around the world coming all the way Down Under to help tell our stories. The latest local film to grace our screens with a foreign star is Top End Wedding, a romantic comedy directed by Wayne Blair (The Sapphires), starring co-writer Miranda Tapsell (Love Child). The added ingredient in this instance is British actor Gwilym Lee, who recently starred as Brian May in the Oscar-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody.
Top End of course refers to the northern reaches of Australia (notably the Northern Territory) and as the title suggests, the movie is a formulaic wedding-themed comedy. And as the poster implies, it is also a ‘melding of cultures’ affair, the likes of which we have seen more times than I care to count. Blair describes the film in the simplest of terms: “a black fella/white fella rom-com,” and with that he has added a uniquely indigenous design on what is otherwise a generic canvas. And he has succeeded. Imagine an Aboriginal spin on My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Bride & Prejudice and you will have a good idea of what to expect.
Top End Wedding tells the story of Lauren and Ned, a young Aboriginal woman and her British boyfriend who get engaged and find themselves in a tizzy with only 10 days to get to Darwin, prepare a wedding and tie the knot. And in true rom-com fashion, nothing goes to plan. They find themselves gallivanting across Arnhem Land in search of her AWOL mother, while nurturing a heartbroken father. Throw in a calamity of hijinks, including rowdy bridesmaids and an indifferent boss, and the scene is set. Of course you are forgiven for thinking that I have just described an excruciating 113 minutes of screen time, but you are mistaken, because the movie I am talking about is an absolute delight.
Blair’s first (fantastic) film The Sapphires was also Miranda Tapsell’s big-screen debut, and it is fitting that they would reunite here for her feature-writing debut. Along with co-writer Joshua Tyler she has injected (or rather infected) an equal sense of culture and joyousness to her story, which sets it apart from others and makes it a rather unique cinema experience. As well as telling a story about two cultures coming together, it also explores themes of disconnection and reconnection, as it delves into a subplot of her mother’s exile from her homeland. This additional layer of depth proves to be the film’s core strength, allowing non-indigenous viewers to fully identify with the characters as they, themselves, struggle with aspects of their own heritage. Suffice to say, the film is an all-inclusive crowd pleaser and refuses to isolate any one audience member from another.
Tapsell is absolutely stunning, as always, and radiates warmth. It’s impossible to dislike her down-to-earth nature, her typically Aussie mannerisms and willingness to look charmingly silly. Gwilym Lee is a fitting co-star, providing a charismatic, yet unassuming, British persona that serves as a perfect counterbalance. His performance is well measured and never relies on caricature as he plays the fish-out-of-water shtick perfectly. Their supporting cast includes Huw Higginson as the forlorn father, Ursula Yovich as the soul-searching mother and Kerry Fox as Lauren’s stony-faced boss. It is a very impressive ensemble, and I was particularly thrilled to see Fox included in the cast (I’ve been smitten by her for 20-odd years).
Alas, to the contrary, the film’s three-act structure is let down by a particularly insignificant middle act, which essentially serves as an overlong, implausible and shameless travelogue. As Lauren and Ned traipse around the outback visiting iconic and beautiful locations, the movie loses all sense of time. Despite racing against the clock, the couple take the time to enjoy the scenery, even taking in a canyon river cruise, as well as making the spontaneous decision to drive to Katherine, all before working their way back up to the northern coast. Heck, I’m not saying that all of this isn’t doable, and the filmmakers have undoubtedly fact-checked their expedition, but I am saying that this portion of the film feels cumbersome and unnecessary. But heck, CU in the NT (ie, please come and visit).
But I digress – let me return to my positive appraisal of Top End Wedding. The film’s biggest strength is its entire final act, which bares the film’s dramatic marrow. Without revealing any spoilers, the final stretch sees a culmination of events and explores the film’s most interesting and emotionally engaging themes. And for all of the conventional trappings of the genre, as well as the questionable middle act, the movie comes full circle, ending on a high note and solidifying it as a bonafide winner. Rom-coms wouldn’t be rom-coms without the clichés and familiar dilemmas, and Top End Wedding has them all… but it also has an abundance of culture and a strong sense of belonging. Oh, and another message to take away from the movie is to always keep your mobile phone on silent (these characters never learn). Fun? Check! Funny? Check! Moving? Check! Yep, add this to your list of films to see this year.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Top End Wedding’ will open in Australia cinemas on May 2.