The Last Wave (1977)


(director/writer: Peter Weir; screenwriters: Tony Morphett/Petru Popescu; cinematographer: Russell Boyd; editor: Max Lemon; music: Charles Wain; cast: Richard Chamberlain (David Burton), Olivia Hamnett (Annie Burton), David Gulpilil (Chris Lee), Frederick Parslow (Reverend Burton), Vivean Gray (Dr. Whitburn), Nandjiwarra Amagula (Charlie). Peter carroll (Lawyer Zeadler), Walter Amagula (Gerry), Athol Compton (Billy Corman), Ingrid Weir (Grace Burton), Katrina Sedgwick (Sophie Burton), Wallas Eaton (Morgue Doctor); Runtime: 106; Janus; 1977-Australia)
“With no one to clue the viewer into this Aborigine myth, it all seemed like a fantastic exercise in counting down to Armageddon but not caring what happens to any of the people.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Peter Weir’s (Picnic at Hanging Rock/Gallipoli/Dead Poets Society/The Year of Living Dangerously)metaphysical thriller is a work some mistakenly think put Australian film on the map. I believe instead it was the compilation of many noteworthy films that made the world notice the quality of Aussie films, especially through directors such as Paul Cox and Jane Campion. Weir has been off and on, missing on a film more often than not. This somewhat challenging film I would rate somewhere in the above average of his opus.

The Last Wave is about a smug, well-heeled, white do-gooder lawyer, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), who takes time out from his corporate taxation practice to take on a pro bono legal aid case to defend a group of Aborigines from a murder charge in Sydney. The mystery within the mystery surrounding the death of one of the Aborigine’s sets a moody spell, as it intones the film with a dreamlike aura and leads the story down a cloudy trail of apocalyptic proportions. If it all didn’t end up to be so patronizing and more of an obvious visionary experience a tourist would have rather than a true exploration of mysteries, I would have jumped more for its attempts to show the contrasting worlds of a glass-and-steel European civilization versus the rituals and mythos of a primitive voodoo culture.

The film opens to the rare occurrence of a hailstorm in the Australian Outback desert and freakish stormy weather in Sydney, which sets the tone for its apocalyptic theme that in the Aborigine dreams of late there’s a seeing of an impending natural disaster which will bring about the end of the world. It is about this time that David is having bad dreams that keep him awake with fright at night. His loving, idealized middle-class wife, Annie (Hamnett), comforts him in their suburban home, while his two giddy young daughters rebelliously rejoice as water flows down the carpeted stairwell from the bathtub no one opened the taps on and turns out to be something that can’t be explained rationally.

Called away from his tennis game, David agrees to take a criminal legal aid case. When he talks with the group of Aborigines who chased their victim out of a crowded seedy Irish bar and are accused of drowning him in a puddle, he senses they don’t want to tell him much about the murder of one of their own, Billy Corman. He is told by his assistant on the case, the cynical regular legal aid attorney Zeadler, that the accused are city folks and there’s no tribes in the city. The best thing he says, is plea bargain the case and get them off with a light sentence. But David believes it’s a tribal thing and not the case of a drunken brawl and he invites one of their leaders, Chris (Gulpilil), to dine at his home to see if he can get to the bottom of this. Chris brings along an older, intense, bearded man, who can stare intently at another with the best of them, Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula), who is introduced as an artist but is really the voodoo magician of the tribe. He acts concerned when David divulges the troubling dreams he had and that Chris was in the dream offering him a stone with a symbolic painting on it. David will learn that they consider him an alien from the land of the rising sun who brought stones to their land in ancient times and who can also see their dreams, and they consider him to be in extreme danger because he can see things he shouldn’t. Dreams, as explained, are to the natives a way of knowing things, like seeing, hearing, and feeling — they are the shadows of something real. According to native lore they believe in two forms of time: real time and a system of perception called “the dream time,” which brings them close to reality in a spiritual sense and is the greater way of telling time.

Warning: spoiler in the paragraph.

The dreams are taken to be so real, that we learn the victim was killed by the voodoo magician pointing a bone at him just because he saw things he wasn’t supposed to.

The film has stunning visualizations of dreams, and it does a good job in the way it photographs in unusual ways the modern city skyline juxtaposed against the return of nature with a vengeance. There’s plenty of floods, thunderheads, cars submerged in water and heavy downpours to get yourself all wet on. Weir and his screenwriters Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu are saying that all the material wealth and social skills David has accumulated as a successful man in the modern world can’t help him now because he no longer has the ability to know what his dreams mean, and this leaves him in a precariously unsettled position. His middle-class life is ruffled, as he fails to stop his clients from being convicted. David also can’t communicate what he’s going through with either his fourth-generation Australian wife who never met an Aborigine before, even though the natives were in this land for the last 50,000 years, or with his comforting minister stepfather who tries to explain away the mysteries instead of exploring them. But where does this mythical tale all go except down the sewer for its finale, as the story failed to catch fire and become a moving experience. Richard Chamberlain is our tour guide into this otherworld, but he’s just a drab spectator and like the viewer spends his time gawking at the dreams pictured and at the natural disasters without seeming to know about the supernatural thing happening. With no one to clue the viewer into this Aborigine myth, it all seemed like a fantastic exercise in counting down to Armageddon but not caring what happens to any of the people.


REVIEWED ON 7/22/2002 GRADE: C +