In director Alex Proyas’ 1998 science fiction thriller Dark City, a US/Australian co-production about creepy bald aliens who construct a replica metropolis and use it to experiment on humans and their memories, protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is determined to find a place called Shell Beach.
He carries around a postcard of it: a kitschy picture complete with blue waters, a lighthouse, a picture-perfect skyline and a smiling cartoon sun. Murdoch is shocked to discover the postcard is a lie, a cruel illusion created by the aliens. Not only does the postcard’s romantic image fail to match the real beach, there isn’t a real beach at all.
Visions of Australian locations as idyllic hideaways are synonymous with sun, sand, waves and water. Some of the most interesting cinematic explorations of this great southern land of warm coastlines and dusty plains capture the beauty of the eternal Australian summer, while also debunking it as a utopian alternative universe where everything is always peachy.
In director James Gilbert’s 1972 classic Sunstruck, Welsh school teacher Stanley Evans (Harry Secombe, who starred with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan in long-running BBC Radio show The Goons) goes through the rough and tumble of his own Shell Beach experience, from spotting a colourful advertisement to discovering a far less picturesque reality. Belittled by his peers and students, Stanley – tubby, socially awkward and easily embarrassed, a mixture of distinguished gentleman and man-child – notices a poster at the train station on his way home from work.
“Teach in the sun”, it reads in bright yellow letters, with a picture of a smiling graduate standing on sand in togs and a mortar board hat. The next scene Stanley is on a plane flying over Sydney harbor, but instead of landing in the sort of paradise he envisioned, he arrives at a dumpy backwater town called Kookaburra Springs. Sweaty and homesick, he struggles to adjust but ultimately finds fulfillment by engaging students in his one great passion: directing a choir.
1969’s Age of Consent, from legendary British filmmaker Michael Powell (one half of the vaunted Powell and Pressburger production company) also begins with a beautiful vision of an Australian beach. Powell scans a wide shot of a painting depicting a coastline populated by an artist behind an easel, a pretty woman in a pink dress and a dog. This picture-within-a-picture dissolves into images of the actual ocean.
Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, protagonist Bradley Morahan (James Mason) is an artist and Australian expat based in New York. We meet Bradley in a crowded inner-city studio, as he sips whiskey and grumbles about his nevertheless successful career. He’s reminiscing to his assistant about how painting used to be a cathartic experience involving responding to things he loves: “light, colour, people and sensuality”. Now he feels drained and out of touch. Bradley moves to a secluded island on the Great Barrier Reef in the hope of reviving himself. Beautiful local Cora (Helen Mirren, in her first major film role) helps get his creative juices flowing again.
Sunstruck and Age of Consent present idyllic visions of Australian life – of Shell Beach, if you like – and fleshes them out with details that both realise and contradict the characters’ hopes. Both are about artistically successful people (Stanley, as a school choir teacher, somewhat more modestly than the chic best-selling artist) who are burnt out but restless. Both revolve around subjects rediscovering themselves and using a secluded Australian location as the place where they contemplate meaning and purpose.
Stanley’s story is inclusive: the class and community come together for a cause, bound by the collective energy and sweet determination of characters in an underdog sports movie. Bradley’s is more personal, a close-knit story focused on him and Cora, whose coming of age and rebellion against her awful gin-guzzling mother forms a crucial part of its emotional impact.
They are interesting companion pieces partly because their contrasts complement each other. Bradley experiences the kind of lush settings Stanley fantasised about, while Stanley’s participation with the classroom leads to the sort of emotional fulfilment that has eluded the artist. Both films represent these in visual as well as thematic senses. In Sunstruck through the faces of the keen-as-mustard kids; in Age of Consent through beautiful underwater images and shots of picturesque shores filmed on the Great Barrier Reef at Dunk Isle, North Queensland.
This wasn’t the first film that drew Powell to Australia. Three years prior he adapted John O’Grady’s classic They’re a Weird Mob, a broad comedy about an Italian immigrant who starts life afresh in New South Wales. It also has a Shell Beach component: Nino, the protagonist, arrives down under expecting to work for his cousin as a sportswriter for a magazine. He discovers the publication has gone bust and his cousin has left him the debt to repay.
If there is a meaning to the Shell Beach metaphor, perhaps it is about dangers in wanting things we cannot have. Bradley can’t have his youth back and Stanley won’t get to conduct bather-clad students singing Waltzing Matilda on an effervescent sun-kissed beach.
The manner with which each character recognises this (Stanley in his embrace of what he is given – untalented but well-meaning kids – and Bradley in his affection for his young muse) ironically leads to their greatest moments of happiness. Despite revolving around arrivals at literal places, Sunstruck and Age of Consent are films about journeys. The shock their protagonists experience when they realise their postcard-like fantasies of Australia don’t match reality is ultimately superseded by the pleasures they find waiting for them. Some are as small as a person walking along on a beach, others as large as a community rallying behind a cause.
Luke Buckmaster is the film and TV critic for Guardian Australia and editor of Flicks.com.au. He is also the author of the George Miller biography Miller and Max: George Miller and the Making of a Film Legend.
This article was originally published on the ACMI Channel in 2014.