JASPER JONES is my all time favourite, and what I consider quintessential, Australian novel. It is Australia’s answer to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ever since I read Craig Silvey’s masterpiece I have been somewhat obsessed with the story. I re-read the book recently, I saw the play two weeks before I saw the movie and I find it a work of fiction so marvellous it should be compulsive reading in schools the world over. If you haven’t read the book buy it this week and get reading. If you have the opportunity to see the low budget play touring Australia do it – it is a fantastic version of the story that is worthy of awards.
The movie is out this week, March 2nd, in Australia from the folks at Madman Films and it is a decent abridged version of the story starring some of Australia’s best. It is rated M and runs for 105mins.
JASPER JONES STORY:
Charlie Bucktin is a teenage bookish youth living in remote Australia during the start of the Vietnam war. He has a Vietnamese best friend but generally keeps to himself with his books. His parents are struggling with their relationship and the town is uneasy about the war and are typically racist towards the indigenous people as was the more ignorant time.
Jasper Jones is a half-cast Aboriginal youth who is blamed for everything in the town. Jasper and Charlie are from different worlds living in the same town, they are not friends.
In the middle of the night Charlie is awoken at his window by Jasper tapping. He pleads for Charlie to follow him and help him. Charlie follows and is led into the bush where a local white girl is found hanging from a tree. Jasper found her and is petrified he will be blamed for the murder and pleads for Charlie to help him find out who killed her.
What follows is not only an incredible whodunnit that echoes TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD but a character study of an entire town dealing with their fears, secrets and prejudice.
Why do I find it quintessential?
JASPER JONES perfectly represents a slice of Australian history and its mindset for the time. It is seen through the eyes of youth so is looked upon with unadulterated innocence. Charlie has no prejudice, he sees things with his heart in black and white. His best friend is Vietnamese and this explains to me why Jasper approached him, that plus the fact Jasper considers him one of the smartest approachable people in town. The movie looks at the treatment of the indigenous people and the fear of a town during a war. It also looks at the effect of isolation on a marriage and it lightly delves into depression. It further looks into how one action can destroy lives with ripples through generations and one of its strengths is what it says about the sweeping of dark family secrets under the carpet.
While we are seeing this overwhelming murder mystery as seen through two kid’s eyes we are seeing an entire world of depth around them that unfolds on the screen, the play or when reading the master copy, the book.
WHAT THEY DID RIGHT:
Sadly for me, out of the book, the play and the movie the movie is the inferior in the story-telling trilogy. They did quite a bit right and a fair few things wrong. They got the casting right, but more on that later. The town’s set design and Mark Wareham‘s (REDFERN NOW, CLEVERMAN) cinematography perfectly displays the tone, heat and time of the story.
JASPER JONES (movie) also got to the heart of the story, the friendship of two unlikely friends and a town’s fear and prejudice of the time. The story of the Bucktin’s family situation was also incredibly well done as was the Wishart’s.
WHAT THEY DID WRONG:
My biggest problem was reading the book twice and seeing the play prior to the movie. Everything I saw was compared to the source and the movie just couldn’t hit the high notes. Oddly a low budget play smashed the high notes and I was left quite flat from the movie. But for people who haven’t seen the source material and don’t know the story – you will LOVE THIS MOVIE!
The movie stayed too depressingly flat and Jeffrey Liu’s (Kevin Long’s) comic relief, his resolve and his whole story was just washed over as opposed to being an integral part of the movie. The Liu story is as important as Jasper’s and I needed more. Excluding the peach tree element from Mad Jack’s property was another cut that highly disappointed.
My biggest gripe was the actor direction from Rachel Perkins (BRAN NUE DAY, REDFERN NOW). The three leads are children and they needed strong direction, something I felt lacking. At times it was just scenes and not a natural flow. Levi Miller is one of my favourite child actors, he is mature beyond his years, in JASPER JONES some scenes were perfection. Sadly, others lacked direction. For the well seasoned senior actors this was not an issue, they can nail a scene’s nuance on their own, and at times their mastery carried the movie.
I have mentioned Miller above, he will become one of Australia’s greats as he matures. Aaron L. McGrath nails the Jasper Jones character and for a debut performance it was marvellous. Angourie Rice’s performance was well played as Eliza Wishart and I wanted more from Dan Wyllie’s performance. The scene in front of the Liu’s house lacked the explosive unleashing of his internalised rage at the situation. I see this more as direction than Wyllie, a fantastic presence onscreen.
Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving are masters of their craft and they nailed their scenes. One of the greater letdowns was not enough of Mad Jack. His scenes felt more explanatory to the story’s progression than getting to the heart and soul of his tragedy.
The story of JASPER JONES is a masterpiece, the novel is one of Australia’s greatest. If you haven’t read the book you will love this movie but sadly for me the movie couldn’t achieve the greatness of the source material. It hits some fine high notes at the heart of the story but wasn’t the cinematic symphony this story deserved. Get thee to the cinema and see it for yourself.
Jason King owns, writes and edits Salty Popcorn and Spooning Australia. He is a movie, food, restaurant, wine, chocolate, bacon, burger and brussels sprouts addict. He is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association and has been in the Australian movie industry for 26yrs. Furthermore he loves watching people trip over and is Leonardo DiCaprio’s biggest fan.
** Images used are courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor or publisher. Credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.