Black and White

Not quite as dull as it's worthy status would suggest. Less whodunit and more didhedoit?

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 14 Jan 2004 by Scott Morris
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Trailers for Craig Lahiff's 2002 film which has taken a strangely lengthy route from it's native Oz to Britain's fair shores led us to expect a rather tired retread of the old 'minority charged for a crime he did not commit' courtroom drama. Those who have more schooling in the area of 1950's landmark Australian court cases would have known that this isn't the case (hahahahhahhahahhahaha, I'm just so funny) at all.

A small South Australian town named Ceduna is shocked to find the body of nine year old Mary Hattam, raped, murdered and left in a cave on the beach. The police are swift to arrest an Aboriginal man working for a travelling funfair, Max Stuart (David Ngoombujarra). A confession is swiftly obtained, and the case is hurried to trial. Defence lawyer David O'Sullivan (Robert Carlyle) is assigned by a lottery to defend him, although Stuart now claims that the confession is false and he is an innocent man. O'Sullivan believes him, but the Crown Prosecutor Roderic Chamberlain (Charles Dance) is absolutely convinced of his guilt.

So far, so familiar. While it continues down the underdog lawyer fighting for a disadvantaged minority member against a court system designed to disadvantage him for a short while, the focus soon changes from the trial of Max Stuart to a trial of the court system itself. This still doesn't quite provide the gripping red-hot legal action that will keep you enthralled throughout but at least it's something a little less common than you might have been expecting. The issue of Stuarts' guilt is neatly side stepped with equally powerful and convincing cases told in flashback for both his guilt and innocence. Stuarts' own left-field remarks at the films conclusion does little to strengthen either case, or indeed make any conventional sense at all, choosing instead to prattle on about Elvis.

A determined O'Sullivan takes his fight to every court in the land trying to prove Stuart's innocence but is essentially stonewalled at every turn. It's only when the populist left wing libertarian newspaper man Rupert Murdoch (yes, that Murdoch, played by Ben Mendelsohn) throws the weight of his paper The Adelaide News behind Stuart's fight that people start to pay attention and start caring that a possibly innocent Aboriginal man may be being railroaded to the hangman's noose with serious allegations and material witnesses left unquestioned. Ending in a Royal Commission that brings the reputations of everyone concerned into question, there's no real happy ending to the story, but after being put through the wringer for the majority of a decade the fact that there's an ending at all no doubt comes as a relief to all involved.

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Like most real life legal situation it's largely a series of dry investigations, with only a few points where the story leaps off the documents and into an engrossing drama. All of them combine flashbacks with the two lawyers respective versions of the truth, and some excellent performances from all concerned. Carlyle's emotive defences are impressive, but thrown into the comparative shade by Dance's intense description of his version of events to a dinner party audience that look to be thoroughly disturbed by Chamberlain's newfound fire.

It's not for the lack of good acting that this film isn't the most gripping movie ever. Dance and Carlyle are near-flawless as the layers who have hung their career on the hanging of Max Stuart, and David Ngoombujarra provides the necessary humanity to make you care about his plight. Special mention must be made for Mendelsohn who at some points even engenders sympathy for Rupert Murdoch, of all people. This was previously thought by panels of international experts to be conceptually impossible, so kudos to that man. Still, his line of 'I'm Rupert Murdoch and I own The News' becomes chillingly accurate in retrospect.

Any movie dealing with this kind of subject matter runs the risk of falling into the dull-but-worthy trap, something that's intellectually recognisable as being worth watching for your own personal education but not something that's actually fun to watch. Black and White just avoids this pitfall it's fair to say it's not exactly a blistering extravaganza of bright lights and shiny things. It is, however, a well paced, well acted and fairly interesting story, albeit in a reserved and occasionally dispassionate way. It is perhaps better suited to a home rental, doing little spectacular to warrant a must-see on the big screen that wouldn't be equally well served at home.

Black and White ought to be applauded for it's realism and it's dedication to the story with out any sensationalism (apart from that slapped on by Murdoch), and it's certainly far more worthy than it is dull. Still, it does little to be outstanding among the current crop of films and as such receives a slightly stingy score. Sometimes, there ain't no justice.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Craig Lahiff
Cast list:
Robert Carlyle (David O'Sullivan)
Charles Dance (Roderic Chamberlain)
David Ngoombujarra (Max Stuart)
Kerry Fox (Helen Devaney)
Colin Friels (Father Tom Dixon)
Ben Mendelsohn (Rupert Murdoch)
Roy Billing (Det-Sgt Turner)