Oyster Farmer Home Vision Entertainment / Image
2004 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 min. / Street Date March 14, 2006 / 29.99
Starring Alex O'Loughlin, Jim Norton, Diana Glenn, David Field, Kerry Armstrong, Claudia Harrison, Alan Cinis, Jack Thompson
Cinematography Alun Bollinger
Production Designer Steven Jones-Evans
Art Direction Lucinda Thomson
Film Editor Peter Beston, Jamie Trevill
Original Music Stephen Warbeck
Produced by Anthony Buckley, Sue MacKay, Piers Tempest
Written and Directed by Anna Reeves
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Only a small percentage of Australian films receive American distribution. The ones set in rural areas often run to stylistic extremes, as with Peter Weir's The Cars that Ate Paris or Stephan Elliott's Welcome to Woop Woop. Writer-director Anna Reeves' Oyster Farmer shapes up as a realistic drama about life among freshwater oyster farmers, a rough group of very likeable people. The film has a pleasing, low-tension attitude about life rare for a post-millennium drama. We follow an outlaw outsider as he's slowly accepted by the locals, and responds to the possibility of becoming part of a meaningful community.
Troubled young Jack Flange from Sydney (Alex O'Loughlin) is working for oyster farmer Brownie (David Field) on the Hawkesbury River. His sister Nikki (Claudia Harrison) was impaired in an auto accident and needs money for physical therapy, so Jack undertakes a daring daytime robbery at the fish market, mailing the loot to himself. When an accident scatters the mail delivery into the river, Nikki is forced to hang around hoping it will show up, and gets more deeply involved in the tightly knit and gossip-ridden local scene. Brownie is separated from his wife Trish (Kerry Armstrong) who appears to be much better at the delicate business of raising oysters, and busybody dad Mumbles (Jim Norton) is constantly on Brownie's case to put the marriage back together. Jack watches for anybody on the river suddenly having a lot of money to spend, and suspects the attractive Pearl (Diana Glenn) when she seems to be acquiring expensive wardrobe items. Jack also meets the reclusive Skippy (Jack Thompson), a Vietnam Vet living up-river who sets a sobering example of the penalties associated with being anti-social. All Jack wants to do is recover his money and clear out, but the eccentric locals are really beginning to grow on him.
Oyster Farmer (2004) is a present-day drama with a mild crime angle. It has been praised for its authentic picture of a working class rural community in a competitive regional business. Spread out along the Hawkesbury River are dozens of independent shellfish farmers on leased plots; we're never given an overview but we see that live Sydney rock oysters are gathered and put in large pens called trays. Farming finesse is required to get them past some delicate stage of maturation. As oysters feed from small organisms in the water, the locals carefully guard the fragile ecology of the river, as shown in the subplot of the character Slug (Alan Cinis) being suspected of dumping sewage.
The demanding business requires long hours of hard work out in the open air, and the roughneck farmers have developed an interesting blend of toughness and sensitivity as they tend to the needs of the shellfish. The main conflict is the marital separation between Brownie and Trish. Everyone knows that Trish is the artist when it comes to coaxing the oysters along, and Brownie has to fend off a constant (and often profane) commentary from old Mumbles, his father. Brownie's just another bloke who wants to do his work and drink his beer -- beer is a serious subject to these folk -- but Trish got fed up with living in a hovel and doing without privacy.
We learn about the river farmers through Alex O'Loughlin's Jack Flange, a city transplant cleverly revealed in bits and pieces. Jack's robbery of an armored truck comes almost out of nowhere. A clever amateur, he makes a robber's mask out of candy, so he can eat the evidence during his getaway. Jack feels responsible for the auto accident that left his sister Nikki brain-damaged, and undertakes his rash crime to fund her hospital therapy.
That was the plan, but the frustrated Jack is forced to stick out the summer working the oyster trays, waiting for either his money or the police to show up. When his boat motor conks out he's rescued by some back-river rogues led by Jack Thompson's Skippy, a grizzled old fellow with a mean streak but a grudging need for someone to talk to. The river area has some parallels with Louisiana bayou culture in America.
Best of all, Jack meets Pearl, an initially aimless local girl clearly attracted to him. People come and go on the river, giving each other rides and trading gossip laced with petty jealousies and low-impact intrigues. Everybody hangs out at the same nightspots drinking beer, so there are no secrets. Jack plays his cards right with Pearl, finding her a puppy when her own dog disappears.
Oyster Farmer doesn't lack for incident but its true appeal lies in its slightly cockeyed character interaction. Old Mumbles has a profane aphorism for every occasion, and even Trish knows her way around a crude joke. All of the humor is Australian, so we Americans need to adjust to discover the jokes for ourselves. Beyond that, there's always the river itself, winding pure and clean through green forests. The movie makes farming oysters look like an idyllic lifestyle for outdoors-oriented hardworking types, even if the magic touch for bringing the oysters to maturity is difficult to come by.
According to the IMDB, this is director Anna Reeves' first feature after two short subjects, yet it is more accomplished than many films by directors with years of experience. The actors are all fresh faces, especially Alex O'Laughlin.
Oyster Farmer has an unfortunate real-life epilogue. Not long after its release, a "tragedy of unimaginable proportions" occurred that "has absolutely finished off any commercial oyster activity on the Hawkesbury River," according to this 2005 Parliament of New South Wales News Bulletin. The culprit is a parasite called Queensland Unknown, or QX. After the film's warm and heartening vision of life on the Hawkesbury, it's a sad thing to find out that aquaculture farming in the entire region has been shut down.
Home Vision Entertainment and Image Entertainment's DVD of Oyster Farmer is a fine enhanced widescreen transfer that duplicates the rich river-scapes and dark forest colors of Alun Bollinger's cinematography. The soundtrack benefits from the mellow violin themes in Stephen Warbeck's evocative score. The only extra is a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Oyster Farmer rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 11, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.