The Australian coat of arms has an emu and a kangaroo upon it because neither animal ever takes a backwards step. That Australian spirit suffuses Director/Co-Writer Rob Sitch’s hilarious 1997 film The Castle.
The plot: Daryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is an honest, happy, tow truck driver who heads a close-knit family. He adores his wife Sal (Anne Tenney) and four children and takes tremendous pride in the rambling, partially completed house he built next to the airport, underneath power lines, and on top of some toxic waste. The Kerrigans’ serenity is shattered when the airport authority announces plans to expand the runway, forcing all the families in their neighborhood to sell their properties. Outraged by the threat to his home and family, Daryl teams with a third-rate lawyer (Tiriel Mora) to fight back, on the grounds that the forced sale violates “the whole vibe” of the Australian Constitution. It’s an uphill struggle against wealth and power, but before you can say deus ex machina, Daryl befriends a retired, kindly constitutional scholar (Bud Tingwell) who sees in the Kerrigans a cause worth fighting for.
No movie I watched during a year of COVID-inspired lockdown more thoroughly banished the blues than The Castle. In part it was how hard and loud and often it made me laugh. It was also the way it made me laugh. It’s pretty easy to make an audience laugh with surprisingly funny line. What Caton is so good at here is harder: Making the audience laugh even though it’s obvious what his funny line will be. If you saw Last Cab to Darwin, you know Caton can do heavyweight drama too, but here he shows comic timing and delivery at the Redd Foxx/Jeanne Stapleton/Bob Newhart level. Under Sitch’s direction, the rest of the cast acquits themselves nearly as well.
Abundant humor is only part of what makes this film so delightful: it’s also endearingly warm and upbeat. Daryl and his clan are inspiring in their ability to derive joy from simple things: a day trip to Bonnie Doon, their favorite television show, a bargain in the classified ads, or a decent meal. And most of all, they unreservedly love and admire each other. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to root for this family as they fight for what’s right.
The Castle is for many Australians the quintessential expression of their culture, and some national catchphrases flowed from the witty script. But it’s in no way culture-bound: I’ve spent less than 2 months of my life in Australia, and I appreciated every moment of this winning movie.
p.s. The Kerrigans would have appreciated the business aspects of this film. Shot in less than 2 weeks on a small budget, it was a smash hit in Australia that returned more than ten-fold its investment. What a bargain, and I’m not dreamin’.
p.p.s. Keep your eyes peeled for Bryan Dawe, half of the brilliant satirical team Clarke and Dawe.