After the enormous success of Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975 Australian director Peter Weir’s next movie was eagerly anticipated. Sadly The Last Wave was a bitter disappointment. I’m not sure if I can describe in words just how disappointed I was by this movie.
It sums up pretty much everything I dislike about Australian movies from the late 70s onwards. It’s earnest, it’s politically correct, it’s self-consciously arty, it’s pretentious. It’s also very silly and the earnest tone just doesn’t work with the silly subject matter. And it’s deadly dull.
Richard Chamberlain is David Burton, a hotshot corporate lawyer who is persuaded to defend a group of Aboriginals accused of murdering another Aboriginal man. He becomes convinced that although there are no tribal Aboriginals living under traditional tribal law in Sydney, in fact that is exactly what they are dealing with - a matter of traditional beliefs and tribal law.
It’s also raining a lot. Lots of rain. Bad rain. Which is connected with the murder although I could never figure out how it was connected.
The court case goes ahead, and Burton continues to try to discover the secret behind the apparent murder. But these are sacred matters so nobody is anxious to tell him anything. Meanwhile it keeps raining.
Eventually we find Burton wandering about in Sydney’s sewerage system, and it’s still raining.
Richard Chamberlain does his best but the other actors are rather flat.
The movie is an attempt to cover similar ground to Picnic at Hanging Rock, playing with ideas of time and place not being what they appear to be on the surface, of mysteries that can never be adequately explained. Unfortunately filming mostly in Sydney didn’t really seem to suit Weir’s visual style and he fails to capture the necessary feeling of mystery, weirdness and the inherent inadequacy of our concepts of time. It’s all a bit too obvious this time around.
To say that this movie failed to engage me would be a colossal understatement. Non-Australians might enjoy this one more than I did, finding an exoticism in the subject matter that just isn’t there if you’re an Australian.
There are some bold ideas here, but where Picnic at Hanging Rock had the advantage of having Europeans confronted by a landscape that was impossibly alien to them that feeling is missing from The Last Wave. Sydney’s sewers just don’t have an atmosphere of strangeness and mystery.
After an extremely promising beginning Weir’s career continued to go mostly downhill from this point on, although his 1979 TV movie The Plumber was an enjoyable return to the black comedy of The Cars That Ate Paris. He ended up making some rather forgettable movies in the US (although The Mosquito Coast wasn't too bad).