Title – High Ground (2020)
Director – Stephen Johnson (Yolngu Boy)
Cast – Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson, Sean Mununggurr, Caren Pistorius
Plot – In the unforgiving lands of early 1900’s Australia, ex-soldier and marksman Travis (Baker) must team up with orphaned indigenous teenager Gutjuk (Nayinggul) to track down Gutjuk’s uncle Baywara (Mununggurr), a man who has banded together a group of Aboriginals that are hell bent on seeking vengeance against the white settlers that have caused them so much trauma.
“When you’ve got the high ground, you control everything”
Review by Eddie on 05/02/2021
Following on in the footsteps of recent Australian success stories The Dry and Penguin Bloom, locally made feature High Ground continues on a strong showing of home grown offerings that finally seem to point to the Australian film industry once more getting back to a point where we are developing quality products that can compete with worldwide produce.
Directing his first film in 19 years following the release of the well-regarded Indigenous themed Yolngu Boy all the way back in 2001, filmmaker Stephen Johnson does a fantastic job of capturing the time and place of the early 1900’s Northern Territory of Australia where a small group of soldiers loyal to crown and country find themselves embroiled in deadly game of cat and mouse between a tribe of Aboriginals that have a right to be seeking retribution following a callous attack on their communities years previously at the hands of white colonials.
Amongst this group of soldiers is Simon Baker’s marksman Travis, a kind-hearted if forlorn soul whose rescuing of young indigenous boy Gutjuk comes full circle when the two are asked to join forces to help track down Gutjuk’s uncle Baywara who has gathered together a mob that have been responsible for various attacks on white settlements across the land.
Pulling no punches in the way it deals with past horrors and the truth of early settlement in parts of Arnhem Land in this time period, particularly with a haunting and confronting opening act that will leave many viewers reeling from its frankness and rawness, High Ground is a visceral film and perhaps one of the best products yet when it comes to capturing the beautiful but dangerous landscape of the “real” Australia courtesy of Johnson, cinematographer Andrew Commis and an undoubtedly wearied drone operator.
Allowing the sounds and sights of the land to take hold of its story and its viewers, High Ground enraptures with its visual splendor and keen eye but its familiar story and uneasy narrative flow holds it back from becoming the Australian classic it may’ve been, even if its cast of industry veterans and newcomers all give it there all as we are taken on a story of revenge and soul searching that never surprises in regards too where it heads.
In what is arguably his best big screen role to date, Simon Baker is on fine form as the hard to read Travis, while supports from the likes of Jacob Junior Nayinggul as Gutjuk, Sean Mununggurr as the menacing but rightfully so Baywara and scene stealer Witiyana Marika as Grandfather Dharrpa ensure that this is a showcase for local Indigenous screen talent and recognizable faces such as Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson and Caren Pistorius round out a top notch Australian based cast.
It’s a shame High Ground’s various elements never create that magic spark that can be found when the stars align but as an examination of our often unspoken about past and our harsh but spectacular lands, Johnson’s film is still to be highly commended.
Final Say –
An at times haunting and captivating Australian film that has an overly familiar narrative and odd flow holding it back from being something truly grand, High Ground is another solid local production from the past few months that goes to show the Aussie film industry is alive and well with talent and stories worth telling.
3 bush plums out of 5