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TORONTO 2019 Special Presentations

Review: Dirt Music


- Passions run high in Gregor Jordan’s overly melodramatic story of love, grief and trauma set against the backdrop of the Australian Outback

Review: Dirt Music
Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund in Dirt Music

To make an audience believe in the irresistible desire of two total strangers for each other is one of the greatest challenges and thrills of cinema. When executed well, a sudden or forbidden romance feels right, even logical, on a level that transcends the banality and common sense of everyday life.

This is something to remember when watching Dirt Music [+see also:
film profile
, Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel of the same name, the narrative of which repeatedly relies on its characters’ uncontrollable horniness yet fails to make them seem anything but profoundly unhinged.

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Shown in the Special Presentations section of the Toronto International Film Festival, the film boasts the kind of broad emotionality, stunning landscapes and starry cast that have come to define the strand. We follow Georgie (Kelly Macdonald), a young woman bored with her life as the girlfriend of Jim Buckridge (David Wenham), a fisherman and local hero of their town in Western Australia. She soon sets her sights on Lu (Garrett Hedlund), a beautiful young man and former musician she sees trying to secretly poach fish at night. It only takes her car breaking down and him offering her a ride for them to then rent a room in town and sleep together, staying overnight.

What makes their love at first sight particularly unconvincing is the way their meet cute is drowned in verbose, unnatural dialogue. Though Georgie is witty, her chatter juxtaposed with Lu’s brooding silence makes their connection appear utterly implausible: even when they get in bed together, he looks more annoyed than anything else.

This same problem of overbearing dialogue plagues the entire film. Though its attention to the gorgeous landscapes of the region hints at the idea that the Australian wilderness and scorching sun are what fuel the passions of the inhabitants, Dirt Music grants us no time to absorb this supposedly heady atmosphere. When revelations surface about Lu’s trauma and a past tragedy that actually links all three characters, the story only feels painfully and desperately contrived – even more so because its melodramatic quality stands in sharp contrast to the naturalistic, low-key performances of the cast.

The film manages to strike a chord in its few musical sequences, flashbacks which show Lu playing in a bluegrass band with two other people who are conspicuously absent from the film’s present-time narrative, but who the sad Lu cannot keep out of his mind. The songs that the small band plays are more beautiful, convincing and full of feeling than the rest of the movie, moments of respite in what otherwise amounts to a strangely alienating viewing experience.

Dirt Music was produced by the UK’s Wildgaze Films and Film4, and Australia’s Aquarius Films. Its international sales are handled by Cornerstone Films.

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