Director: Alena Lodkina
Screenwriters: Alena Lodkina and Isaac Wall
Daniel P. Jones
Runtime: 85 mins.
Australian Release date: 26 November 2018 (limited release)
Previewed at: Golden Age Cinema, Sydney, on 30 November 2018
If there is any justice in the film-making world, we'll seeing more of the work of debutante feature director Alena Lodkina in the future; but, then again, if there was justice Strange Colours would be getting a wider release in Australia than it currently has/is. First screened at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and following up that positive reception with exposure at the Göteborg, Buenos Aires and Atlanta Film Festivals this year, this intriguing and harshly beautiful film is only getting limited outings on a small number of screens around the country. It deserves to be more widely seen even if, admittedly, it’s not exactly the sort of movie you’d expect to find at your local multiplex. It’s a mystery, though, why the bigger independent arthouse exhibitors didn’t pick it up.
Set in Lightning Ridge, NSW, in an opal mining camp on the edge of that distant town, Strange Colours introduces us to Milena (Kate Cheel), newly arrived in the outback hamlet after a long bus ride. She’s a stranger in a strange land that’s populated by some pretty strange people. The young woman has received news that her estranged father, Max (a grizzled Daniel P. Jones), has been hospitalised, so she’s come to see the old man in case he… what? Needs help… would like to see her… is about to die… is sitting on a fortune in opals? We never know, for both father and daughter aren’t exactly loquacious; you suspect they’ve both had enough of humanity. “You look frozen up,” he says to her early on, but the same could just as easily be said of Max. While hanging out at her dad’s rough shack waiting for him to recover, Milena meets Frank (Justin Courtin), a neighbouring, younger miner, with whom she strikes up an acquaintanceship when he offers to show her around the potch heaps and mines that make up the desolate area. A kind of arms-length relationship develops between the pair after Milena wakes up in Frank’s place one morning. And that’s about it, at least on paper, but a lot more happens on screen, and the country itself becomes a fourth player in this quiet drama.
Michael Latham’s camera prowls the blasted earth of the region, almost giving the impression that you’re watching a documentary shot on the surface of the moon, but managing somehow to turn the environment into a thing of unnerving beauty. This sense of otherworldliness is enhanced by the clever use of background noise and acoustic effects by the sound design team of David Ross, Livia Ruzic and Keith Thomas, and augmented by Mikey Young’s eerie music. The performances by the three primary protagonists (and, indeed, the bit players) are totally authentic: the long-haired, rough-hewn Daniel P. Jones looks and acts like he really has been living in a shack in the bush for years and Courtin’s portrayal of Frank indicates that he’s destined to become just like Max before too much time elapses; Cheel paints Milena as enigmatic and mysterious – you never quite know what she thinks about the weird place she has found herself in and the odd characters who inhabit it. They all do great service to Lodkina’s and Isaac Wall’s spare script because they have to convey much of the story through looks and actions, rather than words.
One of the old miners in Strange Colours says to Milena, “The Ridge is a hard place to leave once you get the taste of it,” and the film, too, is like that. It gets its hooks into you. Like the town itself, don’t be fooled by the sense of quiet in Lodkina’s film - under the silent mounds of potch and scrap on the surface, there’s a maze of tunnels where the real action is taking place.