Tuesday 2 August 2016

Movie Review: The Sundowners (1960)

An amiable adventure story set in rural Australia, The Sundowners zooms in on a family grappling with simple but important choices, and provides a satisfying tale of life in the outback.

It's the early 1920s in Australia's back country. Irish immigrant Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum) is a sheep drover and shearer, and enjoys his nomadic lifestyle, always on the move, living in a tent, and generally penniless. But his wife of 16 years Ida (Deborah Kerr) and their teenage son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.) are starting to get tired of the continuous traveling and yearn to settle down, especially once they spot a quaint riverfront farm for sale.

The Carmodys meet resourceful Englishman Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov) and he joins them for a large sheep drive that is almost derailed by a wildfire. Ida finally convinces Paddy to accept a steady job for a few weeks at a shearing camp, where she also takes on responsibilities as the camp's cook. The family makes new friends and Ida does her best to save every penny towards a farmhouse down payment, but Paddy enjoys his drinking and gambling, and convincing him to settle down will not be easy.

An adaptation of the Jon Cleary book directed by Fred Zinnemann, The Sundowners is old-fashioned in the best possible way. Featuring no heroes, villains or contrived drama, this is a jovial movie that goes searching for life's small but essential building blocks. The film may lack punch and any memorably epic moments. But with a rich visual style breathing deeply from the Australian environment (Zinnemann insisted that filming take place on-location), The Sundowners builds slowly and effectively, and happily succeeds in making regular folks, with all their flaws, matter deeply as the champions of their own story.

The Carmody family dynamic features plenty of love, respect and joint effort, but also a steady current of tension, conflict and unease as the family reaches a crossroads. The film works as a metaphor for an evolving society, where setting roots is important to build a community and ultimately a nation, but goes against the spirit of the men who tamed the land.

The Sundowners presents both sides of the debate: Paddy is sure that worrying about drought, flooding, crops and fires at a farmhouse is not worth the trouble; he effectively feels that he owns all of Australia, rather than a small patch. Ida is tired of sleeping in a tent. She pragmatically senses the wear and tear of the passing years, and wants a kitchen and house she can call her own. She is also aware that Sean's ambitions may exceed his father's, touchy terrain that Paddy avoids at all costs, and that their son needs a place to call home and help secure an education.

The highlights are derived from routine milestones that turn into major events in any family's chronicle. The wildfire not only threatens the sheep drive but momentarily separates Paddy from Ida, driving home what they mean to each other. Ida is unexpectedly called upon to help deliver a newborn, while all the men are conveniently out getting drunk. Paddy represents his work crew in a shearing contest that does not go as planned.

Each event is another ring in the tree of the marriage between Ida and Paddy, both testing their patience with each other and strengthening their mutual dependency. And as their adventures reach a conclusion, young Sean is called upon to ride a racing horse called Sundowner, and in the unlikeliest fashion the family's fortunes are inexorably linked to the horse's performance.

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr effortlessly build on the chemistry they established in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Their relationship as the Carmodys has an easy, authentic vibe to it, built on years of joint exploits and still thriving on reservoirs of love and physical lust. Kerr gives Ida plenty of verve and independence without emotionally abandoning Paddy, while Mitchum finds the right tone as a man stuck in the danger zone between masculine instincts to irresponsibly move on, and more evolved imperatives to at least consider doing right by his family.

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