In a few months’ time, British cinemas are going to play host to The Nightingale – director Jennifer Kent’s horrifying, incendiary follow-up to modern horror classic The Babadook. It’s a movie that examines the terror and tragedy of British colonial rule in Australia and its associated mistreatment of the native Aboriginal people. With that film on the brink of arriving, it’s interesting to revisit Aussie classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which focuses squarely on an exploited Aboriginal worker who is pushed over the edge. Thankfully, it’s out on a new Blu-ray transfer courtesy of Eureka Video.
The titular character is played by non-professional actor Tommy Lewis as a hard-working, half-white Aboriginal brought up by a white reverend and educated so he can participate in the world of work. He is repeatedly exploited by various employers and subjected to racist abuse while partaking in the victimisation of his kin in an attempt to please those paying his wages. Eventually, he snaps and brutally murders several white women alongside tribal elder Tabidgi (Steve Dodd), sending him on the run with his remorseful brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds).
Released at the tail end of the 1970s, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was the sophomore feature of writer-director Fred Schepisi, and it’s a hugely accomplished work. Adapting from a novel that was itself inspired by the true story of the notorious Jimmy Governor, it’s an epic tale of discrimination and violence in which there are no moral certainties. Cinematographer Ian Baker’s stunning, sun-baked visuals are so huge that they only emphasise the confinement felt by the characters, living within the structures of a society that resists change or progress.
Lewis’s central performance perfectly conveys the complexity of Blacksmith’s life. Early on, he’s a hugely sympathetic character, driven entirely by his desire to get a piece of the pie in this society, embracing his half-white heritage despite the fact he’s frequently dismissed via any number of racial slurs. His decision to shift from frustration to violence is sudden and shocking, portrayed with real subtlety by Lewis.
When he solemnly declares that he has “declared war” on those who have wronged him, it recalls an earlier conversation among the movie’s white folk in which they state cynically that war is essentially an excuse for murder. It’s never quite clear to the audience whether Blacksmith sincerely believes his cause to be righteous, or whether he has simply become caught in the weeds of murky morality and is unable to escape. His counterpoint is the terrific Reynolds as Jimmie’s sibling Morty, who tearfully refers to his brother as a “devil man” for spilling the blood of women and children. It’s a stark, powerful moment of moral clarity in a deliberately murky second half.
Despite the horror at its centre, Schepisi is not looking to make a moral adjudication with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. His directorial eye is detached and unsentimental, allowing the performers to carry the weight of the central predicament, which they do with skill and aplomb. Peter Carroll, arriving late in the day as a schoolteacher, suggests that it might be the Christian in Blacksmith that provoked his descent into violence, separating him from the connection to his homeland and cooling his previously broad heart.
This is a film that sizzles with quiet power, even 40 years after it was first released into Antipodean cinemas. It looks stunning on Eureka Video’s typically fastidious Blu-ray transfer and comes with the usual array of interviews and documentary features, alongside a booklet featuring legendary critic Pauline Kael’s original review of the film. There’s a lot to feast on here, and not least a ferociously resonant and emotionally potent epic set under the blazing Aussie sun.
Dir: Fred Schepisi
Scr: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Steve Dodd, Peter Carroll, Don Crosby, Ruth Cracknell, Elizabeth Alexander, Jack Thompson
Prd: Fred Schepisi
DOP: Ian Baker
Music: Bruce Smeaton
Run time: 122 mins
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is arriving on UK Blu-ray and DVD via Eureka Video on 19th August.