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Road to Nhill (1997)


Returning from a day’s lawn bowling in a nearby town, a car runs off the road, trapping four lady bowlers upside down. Bob (Bill Hunter), the stock and station agent, recounts the humorous events that followed. Maurie (Paul Chubb), the pig farmer, raises the alarm. The Country Fire Authority volunteers jump into action, arriving well ahead of the ambulance, which goes in the wrong direction. Brian (Bill Young), a bachelor farmer, joins Maurie in the rescue attempt. Three of the women have already dragged themselves free of the car while they assemble tools. Carmel (Lois Ramsey) lies on the ground while Nell (Monica Maughan) and Margot (Lynette Curran) help their friend Jean (Patricia Kennedy) out of the car.

When the ambulance finally arrives, all four women have been taken away by men trying to help. No-one is quite sure where each of them has gone. The local police officer, Constable Bret Whitten (Matthew Dyktynski), has been dallying with a local farmer’s wife. He tries to catch up, but fails constantly. Jim (Tony Barry), husband of Nell, becomes near hysterical with worry. Jack (Alwyn Kurts) worries more about missing a bowls game than his wife Jean. The accident becomes a major event in the town’s history. It changes everything and nothing.

Curator’s notes

There are few films as Australian as Road to Nhill, and fewer still with which it can be compared. It is a genuine original conception, perhaps best described as outside all existing genres, and related to many. It is a comedy, although sort of tragic, a feminist take on the social structures and mores of a small country town; it is a clever and caustic observation of Australian gender politics, but also affectionate and emotional; it has a sophisticated structure that’s both ironic and innovative, yet well concealed beneath a laconic surface. In effect, it’s an enigmatic and sometimes savage satire that looks like a benign rural comedy. Not quite mutton dressed up as lamb, but not exactly a familiar Sunday roast either.

The film is set in Pyramid Hill in northern Victoria, where director Sue Brooks grew up. It was also shot there in 1995. The title is ironic: Nhill as in nil, or zero, or death. The real town of Nhill is 260 km west of Pyramid Hill, and the film never goes near it. Part of the genesis of the project was the stories that Brooks and scriptwriter Alison Tilson heard from Sue’s father. Tilson wanted to emulate the structure of that kind of storytelling, which she identifies as particularly Australian. ‘We enjoyed listening to Sue’s dad’s yarns. He has that particular style of storytelling that draws you in slowly and plays with you. As the story unfolds, there’s always an amusing aspect but there’s always a serious aspect. That became the basis for the film – the concept of the small country town and yarn-telling – not only how things happen and are connected and everybody’s business, but equally how stories are told.’

Bill Hunter’s character Bob introduces the story of the four lady bowlers, constructing his own part in it, but there is also another narrator. Phillip Adams, a noted Australian columnist, becomes the ‘voice of god’, mouthing a series of platitudes about the inevitability of death as the camera flies in from outer space to land on a long country road. Throughout, the camera again takes to the air to give an overview of the misunderstandings and wrong turns taken at strategic points in the story. God is watching and he finds it all very amusing. Sue Brooks has said it is a story about fate, and these aerial shots give that sense of a non-random force at work in their lives. Hunter then begins to tell the story to camera, flanked by a plump, sour-faced woman who says nothing. We only learn later that this is his wife Gwen (Denise Roberts). The fact that she is silent is significant. What the women in the film don’t say is often more important than what they do say. Gwen’s eyes communicate a great deal, even if she allows her husband to tell the story.

Other narrators are consulted later in the film, and none of them quite has the full detail. That gives us a pointer to another of the film’s key influences – the classic Japanese film Rashômon, from 1950, in which a series of people give vastly different accounts of the same event. In Road to Nhill, word travels fast, but clarity is slow. It’s partly a film about small-town ways, but not in a romantic way. The incompetence of the men in the film is astounding, and led to some stinging criticism, that Brooks and Tilson depicted them all as ‘drongos’. That’s perhaps a valid criticism: the male characters in the film, even if affectionately drawn, are mostly ineffective, verging on intellectually deficient. But that criticism also missed the point, to an extent. The film uses exaggeration for comedy; it also makes the men less effective in order to highlight an argument, that country women in Australia often keep their mouths shut, as a cultural practice. A variation on that is that they often suggest things in such a way as to make men feel like it was their idea. That’s clear in the way that Margot and Nell respond to Maurie’s ineffectual ‘rescue’ efforts after the accident. The film doesn’t just offer one idea about the communication gap between the sexes, either. It gives us a range of relationships, and in each one, the gestures and unspoken understandings are very subtle, truthful and emotional (see clip three). The gap isn’t just between sexes: Nell’s daughter, the nurse at the hospital, doesn’t register her own father’s unspoken relief at finding his wife is safe. She’s too young to interpret his inability to speak.

The astonishing aspect of Road to Nhill is that it’s able to sew so much meaning and nuance into the comedy. The film is about the ways in which a small community functions, both the positives and negatives of a place where everyone knows everyone’s business; at the same time it’s a moving film about the isolation in small communities, and the exact nature of what historian Geoffrey Blainey famously called ‘the tyranny of distance’. There’s a small but powerful subplot in the film where a farmer is caught without a vehicle when he hears about the accident. His wife has taken the car to go bowling and he can neither find her nor get off his own property to look for her. He is trying to put the wheels back on an old car when she returns safe and sound, scolding him for not ‘putting the chicken on’.

That scene gives a sense of the film’s unusual qualities – it is close to life, with a strong sense of emotion, but it’s completely unfamiliar in terms of what Australian films are usually about. Rural communities are largely absent from our cinema screens; when they are depicted, it is almost never with this level of familiarity or subtle characterisation. These kinds of stories were once a staple of Australian television, in serials such as Bellbird (1967-1977). A couple of the actors in Road to Nhill were longstanding cast members in that show (Lynette Curran, Peter Aanensen and Terry Norris). Most of the others are familiar from similar shows of the last 30 years.

The film performed well at the Australian box office, taking over $1 million, but by a circuitous route. ‘We were unable to get any Sydney or Melbourne screens at all, so we launched the film regionally with a rolling world premiere at six regional cinemas in Victoria’, says the distributor, Andrew Pike of Ronin Films. ‘It was a grand tour involving a lot of the cast members and the filmmakers, with successive premiere functions, night after night, in Bendigo (the first one), Ballarat, Wodonga, Warrnambool, and a couple of others. We then had openings with cast and the director-writer-producer team in Canberra, Newcastle and others, where it did really well, and then eventually we managed to persuade Greater Union and others to give it a chance in the big cities where it did fairly good business, mainly at matinees. We sometimes got cast members into the cinemas to have morning tea with patrons. The older audience loved this and the cast were all old troupers who loved it too. It was an unusual back-to-front release but it gradually accumulated a respectable figure at the box office.’

Road to Nhill was released in Australian cinemas on 13 November 1997. At the 1997 AFI Awards, it received nominations for Original Screenplay (Alison Tilson) and Original Music Score (Elizabeth Drake).