Beneath Hill 60: go if you want to see a film

Beneath Hill 60It wasn’t in any deliberate attempt to celebrate Anzac Day last night that I went to see Beneath Hill 60. (My spellchecker wants me to respell ‘Anzac’ as ‘Antacid’ but I’ll press on!) Eva and I just wanted to go and see a film and she’d heard good things about it.

It’s a good movie. It is quite well paced, the characters are quite good, and the story is the amazing one of the largest deliberately set off explosion in history until (I imagine) the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I always knew the story of this hill being blown up on the Western Front during WWI with such a force that it could be heard in London! I didn’t know it was Australian sappers who set it off (though in the film most of the preparation is done before they arrive, presumably by Poms.)

It’s an interesting, engrossing story, but somehow I can’t really get too excited about it. While there was some attempt to spice up the characters (I feared a total blandout at the beginning, but there’s a fair bit of variety and interest) there’s nothing really compelling there. I leaned over to Eva and predicted which soldiers would die when on a couple of occasions. Though I didn’t get it entirely right, there was a fair bit of telegraphing. For a while I thought the film was going to give us the “the British were bastards and we were innocents” meme, but it wasn’t too bad in that regard. The only real baddie was an Australian high ranking officer. All the men in the company were good Aussies though some had rough and even nasty exteriors. It might have been more interesting if we’d seen more rough and nasty interiors. Instead we had the kid who was a coward, and that was pretty much it as far as real transgressions against the Anzac legend.

While it avoided lots of the worst that I feared, it never really rose above costume drama. I’m not quite sure why but I find our actors are somehow so absorbed in their own deceptions of simulation that it somehow doesn’t occur to them to explore ways in which the past was another country. So while there’s the odd bit of early twentieth century manners (the hero’s sweetheart says ‘Yes Mama’ and requires the hero to get her father’s permission if he is to write to her from the war), the people all somehow look and feel like our contemporaries dressed up in period costume.

The sweetheart back home scenes are tolerably done, but the sweetheart herself is an airhead judging by this video. She’s almost no different in the film to the way she is in the video. In between interminable pouting smacks of her lips, she says that dressing up in those period costumes made her feel like a princess – Oh Paaahhhleese!  This video is worth seeing in it’s own right – the 60 Minutes treatment of the event and the film, but keep an eye out for the picture of the real couple.  He looks quite like the actor who played him.  She?  Not so much.

The accents were also nothing like the more clipped and Anglicised accents of the time – hers being a particularly egregious example. I sometimes think that if actors could be serious about replicating the accents of the time – one of their proudest and most ferociously sought after achievements is replicating the accents of contemporary England or America, they’d start feeling their way out of costume drama and into something more substantial.

So it’s three and three quarters stars out of five from me.  If you want to go and see a movie, and the story appeals to you, go and see this. If not, don’t bother.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

I liked it – notwithstanding the accents or the teeth that showed the benefits of early 21st rather than early 20th century dentistry. I agree that the back home scenes are weaker than the scenes on the front; aside from the actress the ‘romance’ is so constrainted by the conventions of the era and the only death with a homefront reaction is of a character we never meet. But overall 3.5 stars.

Paul Martin
11 years ago

3.5 stars sounds like a fair score to me, Andrew. I would’ve thought from your comments, Nicholas, that you’d give it no more than 3.

I liked the film on a number of levels. It’s a tiny bit jingoistic, but not very much at all, to its credit. The Queensland scenes offer some relief to the audience from the claustrophobia of the mines. It might seem to compromise the grittiness of the story, but it also makes it accessible to the wider audience it targets. And there’s nothing wrong with making a subject accessible. I thought those scenes humanised the man, showed us where he came from.

Brendan Cowell is often used in a stereotypical manner – the Aussie larrikin/slacker – and it was a relief and refreshing to see him playing it straight. His character is, after all, the backbone of the story. If I had any issue with his character, it was that the age difference between him and the girl seemed a bit too much.

The visuals in the film are mostly very good. It looked genuinely grueling for the actors, covered in mud most of the time. And the suspense elements are good, too. The way the each side was able to deduce the activities of the other, and the more technical details were nicely described to give a story quite different to what we’ve seen before from the trenches. It’s quite amazing that a film hasn’t been made of this before.

I thought the parallel between Sims’ previous film and this one was quite interesting. Both are claustrophic, with the train carriage in Last Train to Freo replaced by tunnels.

I know others have made a bigger point of it, but the music is intrusive at two or three key moments. Not fatally so, but it does undermine the film a little at crucial moments. Fortunately, it recovers each time, and it’s mostly towards the start.

Lastly, the film demonstrates part of the movement away from homogeny, a pit that the local industry fell into and remained for quite some time. Last year appeared to be the start of a turn-around with a new-found zeal for diversity, and so far this year appears to be continuing it.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

“If I had any issue with his character, it was that the age difference between him and the girl seemed a bit too much.”

That was another problem – the age gap between them was stated at 10 years in the film, which would put the Oliver Woodward character at age 26 or 27, when the actor playing him is, and looks like he is, in his 30s.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

Yes I’ve heard from other sources that ‘Hill 60″, like “Kokoda” and recent other period war films, not necessarily all Australian, suffers from a surfeit of clean well-fed TV ready faces with nice teeth.

Amongst the “Master And Commander” DVD extras is a great interview with Peter Weir where he explains how much effort went into casting featured extras and extras that didn’t have a modern face or gaze.

Obviously for the lead roles, he was stuck with names that would raise funding but even then he did also a damn good job of getting Crowe, Betthany et al to look, move and interact like late 17th/early 18th century naval dudes in a world without vitamins, mass media or indeed even decent mirrors.

Tony
11 years ago

Weir even chopped off Crowe’s ear so that it matched Jack Aubrey’s ear. Well, actually, it could have been make-up.

The Pacific has TV faces, too.

It’s not a patch on Band of Brother, either. Even though there were numerous good looking 2000’s roosters in BoB, it shits all over TP. (So far, anyway, after 3 eps.)

Tony
11 years ago

By the way. Anyone been able to work out why the Yanks are importing so many English actors to play Yanks? Surely the Revolted Colonies haven’t run out of actors.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
11 years ago

I enjoyed the film but share some of your misgivings. Far better is Kokoda (on the ABC).