Death in Brunswick (1990)
Carl (Sam Neill) takes a job as cook at a seedy nightclub in Brunswick, an inner suburb of Melbourne. He is verging on being an alcoholic loser until he meets Sophie (Zoe Carides), the club’s 19-year-old barmaid. They fall passionately for each other, which is risky because she’s expected to marry the club’s sleazy owner, Yanni (Nicholas Papademetriou). Carl’s overbearing mother (Yvonne Lawley) doesn’t like migrants either. When the kitchen hand Mustafa (Nico Lathouris) dies accidentally, Carl and his best mate Dave (John Clarke) bury the body in a temporarily reopened grave. Mustafa’s wife and son come looking for him, but the bouncer Laurie (Boris Brkic) throws them out. Carl gets the sack and Sophie calls it off: she has to marry Yanni. In a desperate move, Carl rescues Sophie from the club. They flee to Dave’s house, and Carl determines to take decisive action, to free them both for a new life.
Death in Brunswick was a family affair. Boyd Oxlade, who wrote the novel, is a cousin of Ellery Ryan, who shot the movie. John Ruane, the co-writer and director, met Oxlade through his partner, the sister of Ellery Ryan. The book was unpublished, but Ruane responded to it, partly because it was the story of a migrant community, like the one he grew up around in Pascal Vale, Melbourne. ‘I wasn’t seeing these sorts of characters on the screen’, Ruane says in an interview on the DVD reissue of the film. The script was rejected by all the major distributors, but backed by Film Victoria and the Australian Film Finance Corporation, and the Overseas Film Group in Los Angeles. It was shot on a low budget in January and February 1990, in and around Brunswick.
Oxlade based many of the film’s events on what he had seen working in the kitchen of a long-established Brunswick nightclub. The film script softened the character of Carl, to make him more likeable. Ruane’s casting of Sam Neill helped that process because Neill was already an established international star, although not known for comedy. The pairing of Neill and fellow New Zealander John Clarke is part of what made the film popular. Clarke and Neill were old friends playing old friends, and no-one had ever shown friendship quite so oddly as in the scene that made the film famous – the burial of Mustafa at night in a public cemetery. The scene remains one of the blackest in our cinema – a combination of gross humour and touching loyalty that’s quite surrealistic.
In terms of migrant cinema, the film has some claim to be a trailblazer – although perhaps controversially, in that almost all of the migrant characters are criminals or clichés. There were few migrant characters of any sort in our cinema in 1990, although there were some in television. The comedy series Acropolis Now (1989–92) started on SBS in 1989. Nick Giannopoulos, George Kapiniaris and Simon Palomares had already created the hit show Wogs Out of Work on stage, but it was another ten years before The Wog Boy (2000) movie became a hit. Ana Kokkinos had not yet made her own dramatic impact with two films, both set in the Greek community of Melbourne – Only the Brave (1994) and Head On (1998).
In a sense, Death in Brunswick fits less into the genre of migrant cinema than a subcategory, which might be termed crossover migratory cinema. It’s the story of an Anglo man attracted to a young woman whose parents were migrants. It’s about the way that Australia had changed by 1990, in places like Brunswick in Melbourne and Cabramatta in Sydney (see Little Fish, 2005). That sense of old attitudes is applied to both sides, in the characters of Carl’s mother, who doesn’t like migrants, and Sophie’s father, who doesn’t trust Anglo-Celtic Australians like Carl. The happy marriage scene at the end of the film suggests a symbolic union, a hope for the future, albeit heavily tinged with satire.
Death in Brunswick was released in Australian cinemas on 26 April 1991. It was nominated for five AFI Awards in 1991: Picture, Actor (Sam Neill), Director, Screenplay and Cinematography (Geoffrey Ryan).