Port Arthur Gets the Snowtown Treatment in Nitram

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Australia has long had difficulty reconciling with its past, whether it be pertaining to its colonial practices, its treatment of First Nations peoples, or its storied xenophobia. This biographical picture explores a more recent chapter in the country’s dark history, one that’s bound to provoke discomfort, yet is worth sitting through all the same.

A disaffected young man (Caleb Landry Jones) lives in the outer suburbs of Hobart, Tasmania with his cold, domineering mother (Judy Davis) and lackadaisical father (Anthony LaPaglia), ostracised by society and dependent on others to care for him. His only source of compassion is Helen (Essie Davis), an older woman whose fondness for him is eclipsed only by her passion for Gilbert & Sullivan operas; but like everybody else, she has limits for his eccentric behaviour.

Nitram (2021) is a veiled portrait of Martin Bryant, who is infamously and inextricably linked with the slaughtering of innocent people at the historical Port Arthur convict settlement in 1996. Interestingly, although Bryant is the narrative’s central figure, at no point does the film refer to him by name, nor does it mention where the atrocity he committed took place, with the focus instead being placed on the moments leading up to the event in hope of understanding the perpetrator’s mindset.

Material of this sort is not new to director Justin Kurzel, who previously helmed the picture Snowtown (2011) to critical acclaim. Said picture is a semi-fictionalised retelling of the Snowtown murders – so-named because of the South Australian locale where the bodies were hidden – that centres on an assailant to the crimes, detailing his troubled upbringing as a reason for his actions. This level of sympathy is somewhat absent in Nitram, since the film is non-committal in deciding who is at fault for the main character’s behaviour.

Similar levels of caution are applied throughout Nitram, being more delicate and poised than its subject matter would suggest – viewers are never shown instances of graphic violence at the hands of the characters, and likewise are spared having to witness the horrific bloodshed inflicted upon people at Port Arthur, ensuring that the picture is respectful to Bryant’s victims. And yet, although instances of violent behaviour are few, they are nonetheless terrifying when they do occur.

Judy Davis, as she appears in Nitram

Another peculiar facet of Nitram is how the story never seems to reach its climax. Like a powder-keg that never ignites, tension slowly and steadily builds throughout, yet that tension is never released, with the conclusion arriving just as the pressure reaches its peak. Amazingly, these last moments prove to be the most eerie and affecting part of the entire picture, with pointed intertitles referencing the proliferation of gun violence, followed by credits that roll to absolute silence.

Of greater fascination are the astounding performances from the main players, including Caleb Landry Jones. The Texan actor’s commitment cannot be faulted, for he speaks with a seemingly-natural Strine, and conveys his character’s vulnerability and underlying cruelty with considerable ease – qualities that rightfully won him Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Nitram had its world premiere. His brilliance is equalled by industry veteran Judy Davis, whose baleful matriarch is sure to earn the scorn of audiences.

Regrettably, the excellence of Nitram is devalued by a poor choice in filming locations, with the Victorian city of Geelong acting as an unconvincing stand-in for Hobart and its surrounds. Aside from one aerial shot of tree-laden hills surrounding an undisclosed body of water, none of the scenery inhabited by the characters shares so much as a resemblance with southern Tasmania, being flat, arid and most unflattering to the eye; what’s more, there’s even a blatant disregard for continuity – at one point, a V/Line train can be seen travelling in the background.

Ignore this laziness though, and what’s left is unequivocally the best Australian production of the year, bar none. Guided meticulously by Justin Kurzel, Nitram doubles as both a gripping biography of a disturbed soul and an effective slow-burn thriller, further bolstered by the phenomenal acting of the leads.

Nitram is currently screening in select cinemas, and will be streaming on Stan from this Wednesday, November 24th.

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