Riding the Australian New Wave

Kino. Picknick Am Valentinstag, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Picknick Am Valentinstag, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Die Maedchen haben viel Spass bei ihrem Ausflug, bis vier von ihnen und eine Lehrerin spurlos verschwinden., 1975. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

The Criterion Channel, the best streaming service money can buy, recently added a new collection to its roster focusing on the films of the Australian New Wave.

The New Wave was a period in the 1970s and ‘80s when Australian cinema was undergoing a worldwide critical and commercial renaissance. Internationally-recognized Australian directors came up during this period, including Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show) and George Miller (Mad Max, Happy Feet), as did many Australian actors, like Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman.

The films in the Australian New Wave vary in terms of style and content, with some making use of the expansive vistas of the Australian Outback to tell stories of man v. nature, while others are more interested in the racial disparity between Australia’s Aboriginal population and the descendants of the country’s white settlers.

Films included in the new wave run the gamut from drama to horror to comedy, each with its own unique flavor—and each quintessentially Australian.

Since I’ve been letting the films of the Australian New Wave melt my brain for a few weeks (I’ve watched upwards of 20 movies), I decided to compile a list of my favorites. After putting this together I was happy to see that the entries are as diverse as the movement they represent.

There’s a movie here for everyone, so read on and take a ride on the Australian New Wave.

Walkabout (1971)

A survival film set in the Outback, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout follows two white schoolchildren whose father commits suicide while on a picnic with them as they navigate the unforgiving Australian wilderness. They are eventually joined and aided by an Aboriginal boy performing his culture’s rite of passage: walkabout.

While it makes for a compelling survival story even without reading into its thematic messages, Walkabout is also an examination of communication and the loss of innocence, in addition to serving as a biblical allegory that sees the Outback as the Garden of Eden.

Wake in Fright (1971)

This is, at its core, a movie about how horrifying it would be to hang out with people who live in the Outback. Wake in Fright an important film in the Australian New Wave and an unsettling story, best known—viewer beware—for its depiction of an actual kangaroo hunt. The footage from that scene is profoundly upsetting and may be too graphic for some viewers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

A sun-soaked mystery film, adapted from a novel of the same name, about schoolgirls who go missing during a picnic and how their disappearance affects a local community. Picnic at Hanging Rock is wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling, keeping you guessing throughout its 115-minute runtime—and long, long after.

Don’s Party (1976)

A movie about the importance of not having friends as an adult.

The Getting of Wisdom (1977)

The Getting of Wisdom is based on a 1910 novel of the same name and follows the adventures of Laura Tweedle Rambotham, a girl attending a Melbourne boarding school at the turn of the century. She’s precocious and eccentric, telling stories and struggling to get along with her classmates, but making for an utterly compelling protagonist.

My expectations were not high going into this one—it didn’t seem like my kind of movie—but I was won over almost instantly. Laura’s trials are relatable, her antics entertaining, and her accomplishments heartwarming.

If you’re a fan of coming-of-age stories, you can’t go wrong with this film.

Breaker Morant (1980)

Based on a play, which, in turn, was based on a true story, Breaker Morant is a look at one of the first war crime prosecutions in British military history.

It follows the court martial of three Australian soldiers during the Second Boer War who are accused of murdering prisoners of war and an unarmed civilian. The film cuts between the trial proceedings and flashbacks to the events being litigated, forcing viewers to confront the crimes Breaker Morant and his companions are charged with.

While Morant and the others are clearly guilty, the movie has encouraged people to ask whether the accused deserved punishment or if they were being used by the British and Australian governments, turned into, as one of the accused would later write, “scapegoats of the empire.”

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

So much has been written about the second Mad Max movie that anything I add to the discussion in this blurb will seem trite. The Road Warrior is, by almost any estimation, one of the greatest action movies of all time.

In comparison to Mad Max: Fury Road, the smash-hit that came roaring into cinemas 30 years later and revitalized the franchise, 1982’s The Road Warrior is a smaller, more contained piece that pits Max Rockatansky against a gang of leather-clad savages terrorizing a community in the Wasteland.

The movie is just as fun to watch now as it must have been when it came out nearly 40 years ago, and its influence on action cinema, comics, and the rest of pop culture can’t be overstated. The stunts are excellent, the characters every bit as odd and interesting as you could hope, and if you haven’t seen this one yet, you owe it to yourself to do so.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

The final film in my Australian New Wave watch, and one of my favorites. The Year of Living Dangerously is based on a novel of the same name and set in Indonesia in 1965 during a time of political turmoil for the country. It follows Mel Gibson as an Australian journalist who begins an affair with a British Embassy officer played by Sigourney Weaver.

The most interesting—and problematic—casting choice of the movie is having Linda Hunt play the male dwarf Billy Kwan. Hunt won the 1983 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work, but, as stated by the Criterion Channel, “the film is marred by the decision to cast her, a white actor, as a Chinese Australian character.”

At any rate, the movie is a great romantic drama that features a pre-problematic Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver at her best, and showcases a time and place in history that I—and, I would wage, many other people—have heard little about. The Year of Living Dangerously is a must-watch about change, betrayal, and love in the midst of a revolution.