This year’s Australian film and TV awards, the Aactas, took place before a backdrop of controversy: at the weekend the Australian revealed that the academy’s board last year sent a “grovelling apology” to its former president Geoffrey Rush, begging him to return to the position “under any terms you may like to propose”.
The veteran actor is at the centre of a legal case involving allegations of inappropriately touching his co-star of a Sydney Theatre production of King Lear, which he denies. The ensuing defamation case comes at a time of heightened concern about gender issues in Australian film and television, with Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative addressing the underutilisation of female talent, and an Aacta member, Andy Hazel, questioning the industry’s support of misogyny-filled stories.
The issue cast a shadow over a ceremony which, more so than in previous years, made a stand for marginalised groups, including Indigenous and LGBT Australians, and asylum seekers.
The director Warwick Thornton’s spellbinding neo-western Sweet Country emerged as the clear winner in the film categories, taking six awards including best film, best director, best original screenplay (by David Tranter and Steven McGregor) and best lead actor (Hamilton Morris, starring in his first film role).
Other top-performing films include Ladies in Black (for lead actress, original score and costume design), Breath (for supporting actor and sound) and Boy Erased (for supporting actress and adapted screenplay).
Sweet Country – Thornton’s second masterpiece after his 2009 feature debut, Samson and Delilah – deserves the accolades. As I noted last year, Aacta have a tradition of awarding the top gong to the best performing film at the box office: from the organisation’s point of view, Red Dog is a superior film to Snowtown, and The Great Gatsby is better than Mystery Road. But the sheer critical weight behind Sweet Country, which my Guardian colleague Peter Bradshaw described as a “biblical western” in his five-star review, proved too great to ignore.
The hardships indie film-makers face in breaking into the system were emphasised, rather than meaningfully addressed, by the introduction of a new category – best indie film – for feature films made for under $2m. Benjamin Gilmour’s deeply contemplative Afghanistan-set war film Jirga won it, though the also-nominated Strange Colours would have made a deserving choice, too.
Both were, in my view, better than those Sweet Country competed against for best film – and by placing them in the lesser category, Aacta sends a message that it’s big bucks, not talent, that will get you the top prize.
In terms of snubs, the director Stephan Elliott’s fabulously sly and cynical coming-of-age comedy Swinging Safari received not a single nomination – a significant oversight. Elliott is one of Australia’s few comedy auteurs, and the film’s fabulous cast includes Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell and Asher Keddie.
It’s a shame no prizes went to the writer/director Leigh Whannell’s pulpy sci-fi film Upgrade, despite its five nominations. Combining a “world gone wrong” dystopian aesthetic with a scuzzy grindhouse vibe, the film – about a quadriplegic man implanted with a chip that returns the use of his body – is completely unpretentious, but makes hugely compelling prophetic statements about transhumanism and artificial intelligence.
For television, ABC’s Mystery Road TV spin-off won best drama. The finest locally made series this year, SBS’s morally complex asylum seeker drama Safe Harbour, was beaten in the best telefeature or miniseries category by the compelling and well-made telemovie Riot (about the formation of the Sydney Mardi Gras and the life of its founder, Lance Gowland).
Its stars, Damon Herriman and Kate Box, took best lead actor and actress in a TV drama.
The cinematographer Garry Phillips was honoured for his work shooting Foxtel’s candy-coloured, blindingly bright and glossy readaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Deborah Mailman and Wayne Blair also deserved to win their respective guest role categories, after making excellent use of their limited screen time in Mystery Road.
And it was good to see recognition for Scott Ryan, for his charismatic yet creepy portrayal of a hitman in the director Nash Edgerton’s comedy-drama series Mr Inbetween. The show is a spin-off of The Magician, a micro-budget mockumentary Ryan wrote, directed and starred in which arrived in cinemas in 2005 – so giving him best new talent can be seen as a bit of a stretch.