Detective Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) strides across a sun-bleached field, a miniscule figure against the desiccated landscape. If it weren’t for the contrast of his stark white shirt and black slacks – both funeral attire and workwear – he’d be almost invisible. The camera tracks him steadily before another shot intrudes: a younger Falk, running through the bush in a sweat-stained school shirt, the camera barely keeping up. Falk bolts after his own ghost into a scorched riverbed, where he slows, framed by slanted gums and dead tree stumps, realising that it’s the same river that Ellie Deacon’s body was pulled from 25 years earlier.
This is director Robert Connolly’s favourite visual in his adaptation of Jane Harper’s best-selling novel, The Dry. “All the major emotional and narrative elements are in the orbit of the landscape,” he tells us. “It’s two landscapes really, it’s the world of the past and the present.”
The riverbed is the intersection of those two timelines. Earlier in the film we see the teenage Aaron and his friends Ellie, Gretchen and Luke frolicking in the water. By the time Aaron arrives in the present, the river is dead, like most of his friends – Ellie then, and Luke Haddler now, suspected of murdering his family and then himself – and the town of Kiewarra too, the river emblematic of climate change and the searing drought.
“One of the things that I love about Jane Harper’s work is the way she places characters in very distinct landscapes that are the engines of the narrative, [but also] reflect the psychology of the characters,” Connolly explains. Of course, books don’t translate onto screen verbatim. In the book, the discovery of Ellie’s body is intercut with Falk being confronted by Ellie’s father, and Falk doesn’t witness it when he’s a teen. This is likely why Connolly’s favourite visual was also “the most challenging to adapt"; it’s a uniquely cinematic way to render the book’s events and psychological metaphors.
It was old friend and producer Bruna Papandrea (Gone Girl, Big Little Lies) who presented Connolly with this inevitable hurdle by introducing him to the novel. He loved it, not only for the “detective mystery elements”, but because of the “amazing character of the landscape”. Having grown up in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, he's always been “fascinated by the world outside our major cities and how people live – the challenges, joys, crises and the whole mix of stuff that makes up regional life”.
Adapting the book provided its own (further) challenges. Connolly believes that a script is written three times – on the page, on the shoot and during the edit – and didn’t think they quite got it on the page. “It was tricky to distil a complex 300-page book into a 110-minute film,” he admits, recalling many hours spent in the editing suite as well as reshoots, during which he returned to Harper’s book as a guide. “It was a very complex nut to crack.”
Luckily for Connolly, he had another old friend involved to help – Eric Bana. “It was like two friends trying to work out how to crack these scenes. He’s one of our great actors and [in The Dry] it’s a subtle performance – we didn’t want a demonstrative performance – we wanted a finely calibrated character portrait.”
And it is. Throughout The Dry, Bana seems to reflect the smooth exterior of Melbourne skyscrapers featured when Falk’s introduced but churning beneath his glassiness and grit is the regret and vulnerability of the bone-dry landscape. “I simply couldn’t have asked for a better Aaron Falk than Eric Bana,” Jane Harper has said. “He has... really captured the heart and soul of a character that means a lot to me.”
Heart and soul are something Connolly is always looking to explore, whether through a war movie like Balibo (2009), a monumental art piece like The Turning (2013) or a kids’ film like Paper Planes (2014). (You can trace Connolly’s interest in different genres and narrative textures to seeing Fantasia as a kid, his love for humanist themes to director Peter Weir and his passion for grand cinematic scale to 2001: A Space Odyssey.) “Each film is delving into some part of the human condition,” he answers when asked what he looks for in a story. “With The Dry, it’s as much about Aaron Falk’s journey as it is about the detective plotting and genre… so works that touch the heart in some way or reveal some aspect of the human condition, that’s honest and visceral and truthful – that’s what I’m reaching for.”
That also extends to the production design and locations. According to Connolly, the Wimmera Mallee region where The Dry was filmed “is in the DNA” of the movie. Connolly and the team captured the landscape with large format Panavision lenses, resulting in sweeping shots of bushland, wheat silos looming over town and fields encroaching on isolated farms. But there’s also a battered intimacy to the film’s environments: the Haddler’s garden ringed by dead roses, an unused bain-marie at the pub, sparsely stocked pharmacy shelves, a pile of dirt outside a new suburban build. Each house, each setting, has unique characteristics that Connolly likens to a jigsaw puzzle. “There’s so many multifaceted aspects of [rural Australia], rather than just a homogenised world out there,” he explains. “[Creating] a more accurate portrait of the world that people live… that’s how you get to those humanist themes, to feel and believe the real world."
Those humanist themes, to fully resonate with audiences, required Conolly to juggle the book’s timelines. As he mentioned, the narrative is tricky, and he hadn’t made a detective mystery before. “I always knew the film was going to have this strange final act with these two crimes," he recalls. “You know, the visual peak of it happening with one revelation and then another revelation still to come, which is [Falk’s] more emotional and cathartic journey – I didn’t want to conflate the two into one moment." So, the audience discovers what happened to the Haddler family, and then, fifteen minutes later, what happened to Ellie, which finally offers Falk closure. “It’s the balance of the conventions of cinema with the boldness of structure at the end of a film that feels quite commercial; [the ending] almost sits in contrast with the conventional wisdom that a film should build to a peak, resolve and end. It was great to realise that audiences were up for that."
That’s an understatement. Since its debut in 2020, audiences have flocked to The Dry, helping it make over $20 million at the Australian box-office – no mean feat – placing it in the top 20 Australian earners of all time. It also spearheaded a resurgence in box-office success for local stories, with Australian films – The Dry, High Ground and Penguin Bloom – holding the top spots at the cinema for the first time in this country.
Like The Dry, there was another narrative unfolding alongside its production. At the time, the federal government was considering reducing the producer offset for feature films from 40% to 30%, while raising the television offset from 20% to 30%, thereby making them equal. This would’ve allowed streaming giants like Netflix to create TV in Australia for cheaper, while making it more expensive for local creatives to make feature films. Connolly was a vocal opponent of this idea, despite having worked extensively in TV himself, both at home (The Slap, Barracuda, The Warriors) and overseas (Deep State), and the box-office success of The Dry helped convince the government there was money to be made releasing Australian films theatrically. They kept the offset at 40%.
“What I think The Dry’s theatrical release in Australia has shown is that there’s still a massive appetite for a cinema experience, it’s not over – you know there’s a lot of people who say it’s all about the small screen and cinema’s going to die – well that’s not really the case, people love going to the cinema. [The Dry] came at a really good time to help show the federal government that Australians love Australian cinema; they really enjoy seeing their national stories on the big screen.”
Apart from writing, directing and producing Australian stories for the screen himself, Connolly is also interested in fostering the next generation of local filmmakers, through a new initiative called Originate. “It's an initiative for new diverse voices, with diversity expressed in a broader sense, so that it can be cultural, social, economic, age, demographic, gender – it’s reaching out and asking, “What stories do you want to tell?”’
And respondents have answered with over 190 applications in the first round, with the initiative eventually seeing three projects considered for production finance, with one going into production in 2022 with a $1.5m budget, financed by Film Victoria, SBS, Connolly’s Arenamedia and distributor North South East West. “I think that everyone’s got really interesting stories to tell and it’s just trying to get people to have the courage to open up and tell them and expose something of themselves in the work,” he explains passionately. “I want to see originality and see courageous filmmakers being personal about their own experiences and interests.”
When asked what recent Australian stories he’s seen on-screen that reflect the kind of risk-taking he's interested in, he cites Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours and Warwick Thornton’s work, as well as how excited he is to see Leah Purcell’s upcoming The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson.
“But it’s also rather than individual films, it’s looking at our national cinema and just going ‘Wow’.”
If the critical and commercial success of The Dry is anything to go by, there's no shortage of appetite for Australian stories.
– Matt Millikan
Objects from The Dry are currently on display in The Story of the Moving Image
Stream, rent or buy The Dry on JustWatch.