Retro Review: “The Castle”

Castle posterAustralians like to think of themselves as battlers, overcoming hardship and adversity, seeing their every triumph as a win for the “little guy”. It’s a label that could similarly be applied to this film – produced on a meagre budget without a major distributor, in two decades it has gone on to become our nation’s most adored movie, a title that it most certainly deserves.

Dale Kerrigan (Stephen Curry) is The Castle’s humble storyteller. He lives with his father Darryl (Michael Caton), mother Sal (Anne Tenney) and older brother Steve (Anthony Simcoe), all of whom reside in a house next to an international airport. This doesn’t bother any member of the Kerrigan family, least of all Darryl – he would rather admire the simple pleasures in life, be it the beauty of greyhounds, one of Steve’s inventions, or the mundane cuisine that Sal serves for dinner.

Conflict comes in the form of a compulsory acquisition notice, which states that the Kerrigans must vacate their property to make way for an extension of the airport’s runway. Darryl believes that the acquisition is unjust, and so appeals the decision in the courtroom. Unfortunately, Darryl’s argument that the acquisition is against “the law of bloody common sense” doesn’t have any legal basis, and as of such the case is thrown-out, much to his sadness.

To assist in the matter, Darryl engages his former solicitor Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora) who unsuccessfully defended Darryl’s eldest son Wayne (Wayne Hope) on an armed robbery charge. Dennis has limited legal experience, and a very limited understanding of roman numerals, so he probably isn’t the best lawyer to argue Darryl’s case. But Darryl’s faith in Dennis’ abilities is unabated, so it is with great optimism that they head to the Supreme Court to overturn the acquisition.

The Castle came about after Working Dog Productions, the team behind television’s D-Generation and Frontline, were unable to obtain funding for another script they had written, and so produced this screenplay to gain some film-making experience. Released on the 10th of April, 1997 – that’s twenty years to the day, folks – it relied on positive reviews and word-of-mouth, rather than a recognisable cast and crew, to achieve box-office success. In the years since, with television screenings and home-video releases, its popularity only seems to have grown.

At the time of The Castle’s release, most of the actors had never appeared in a feature film, and were better recognised for their TV work. The lack of household names was, more than anything, due to the insignificant budget, yet the acting here is on-par with that of any A-lister. Michael Caton excels as Darryl Kerrigan, playing the warm fatherly role with ease; Tiriel Mora is loveable as Dennis the fumbling lawyer; and in a supporting role, the late Bud Tingwell plays affable barrister Laurie Hammill in what many consider to be a career-defining performance.

While there is great value in the performances, The Castle is first and foremost a comedy, and a funny one at that. The quirks of the characters are what produce the biggest laughs, whether it’s Dale’s honest narration, Darryl’s deadpan delivery or Dennis’ ineptitude. Additionally, the characters are so likeable that one feels a genuine sense of sorrow when Darryl loses his case. To feel such remorse for a protagonist is a rare achievement for any film, let alone a comedy.

Perhaps that’s why the movie is still celebrated after two decades – we relate to the down-to-earth characters so much that their struggles become our own. It would also explain why many of the actors have gone on to become national treasures, and why so much of the idiosyncratic dialogue has become part of the Australian lexicon – phrases such as “Tell him he’s dreaming”, “It’s the vibe”, “How’s the serenity?” and “This is going straight to the pool room!” are the lines most often quoted in everyday situations.

A word of advice though: if you are to see The Castle, be sure to find a digitally-remastered copy. The grainy look of the movie (another consequence of the low budget) makes it look as though it was filmed in the Seventies rather than the Nineties, which is a problem on the earlier VHS and DVD releases. More recent copies of the feature on Blu-Ray have eradicated the granular footage, and allow the film to be better appreciated.

The Castle isn’t just a humorous, heartfelt story about an underdog – it’s the very embodiment of the Australian spirit, one that even audiences outside of Australia can identify with. With endearing characters and great performances, it’s an antipodean classic that belongs in everybody’s pool room.

5-stars

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