‘Just a Farmer’, an excellent Australian rural drama likely to disappear without trace; Olivia Colman gleams in fine British dramedy with ‘Wicked Little Letters’

Facing tragedy: Leila Mcdougall in ‘Just a Farmer’.

JUST A FARMER **** (103 minutes) M
The searing emotional ripple effect of a young farmer’s unexplained suicide is deftly unpacked in Just a Farmer, a sensitively realised rural drama that never allows its topicality to cloud the impact the tragedy has on a family and a small rural town.

There are no outward signs that anything much is bothering sheep farmer Alec (Joel Jackson) as he and his loving wife Alison (Leila Mcdougall) work the property and raise their two young kids. He jokes with them on the way to school, horses around with them at the dinner table.

Subtle hints suggest something is deeply troubling him. There are business matters he keeps from Alison. His heavy-drinking father Owen (Robert Taylor) ribs him half seriously about how he’s not hanging out with the boys all that much.

Out on the property, after putting down a stricken farm animal, he shuts himself in his vehicle and pounds the wheel with unfettered rage, a full venting of the feelings he is carefully keeping from everyone else.

So when Alison discovers his dead body the shock is deep, immediate and utterly confounding.

She doesn’t understand, neither does Owen. The truth is kept from the kids to help them cope with the loss, but they can see from the mess the house has become that their devastated mother has lost her bearings and is drowning in the depths of despair.

Not only does she have a family to maintain, she also has a debt-ridden farm to operate. Repairing key machinery requires favours and kindness.

Alison’s city sister Kathryn (Susan Prior) arrives to provide support and some much-needed perspective, and there is some help from the locals – though certain women who relish the prurient gossip about the suicide prompt a brief but sharp public outburst.

If Mcdougall has limited experience as an actress – her only other IMDB credit is the comedy short Some Are Clingers, which she wrote and directed – she hides it extremely well. Her portrayal of a woman faced with a hydra-headed nightmare is a tender, heartening, moving and thoroughly convincing.

Mcdougall, a producer on the film, is also credited with the screenplay. If what we see on the screen is an accurate reflection of what was on the page, she has done an outstanding, award-worthy job.

As rendered by superb, understated direction from Simon Lyndon – a journeyman actor best-known, perhaps unfairly, for his memorable work as Jimmy Jimmy Loughnan in Chopper – the narrative of Just a Farmer is full-bodied and well-rounded, rich in nuance and detail.

There’s not a question mark raised in the first act of the story that is not addressed by the third act, suggesting that all matters regarding foreshadowing, emotional logic, through lines and narrative consistency were thoroughly nutted out before the cameras rolled.

That’s just a theory, of course, based purely on the sheer relief of seeing an Australian film that doesn’t feel like it was filmed on the basis of a screenplay that was several drafts short of an elephant stamp.

Complementing the story no end is the deceptively matter-of-fact cinematography by Gavin Head, who brings a docu-drama feel to the exteriors and a naturalistic intimacy when things go one-on-one.

Captions about the prevalence of farmer suicides in Australia top and tail the film, suggesting that Just a Farmer is an activist film.

It isn’t. It’s a humanist film that wisely suffuses its concerns in a well-homed, deeply personalized story rather than trumpet an agenda through narrative. Thankfully, there aren’t any blatant signs of research being shoe-horned into the dialogue – always a dead giveaway – and the term “mental health” only comes up once.

So, is this beautiful, thoughtful movie headed for the whirlpool of obscurity that has swallowed up so many other fine Australian films?

Regrettably, that’s the fear, that Just a Farmer will be the latest example of a good local film that arrived largely unheralded with almost no public profile before vanishing with little or no trace.

Here’s hoping those fears are misplaced.

At the film’s premiere at the Astor of Friday 15 March, Mcdougall said in a Q&A how pleased she was that the film was going to be showing in about 100 cinemas across the country, that she had been calling up regional venues individually to persuade the operators to book it.

One can’t but respect such fortitude, yet you would have hoped by now that a film like Just a Farmer would have been granted a wider release. Kudos to Palace for giving it a berth in its schedule.

To belabour an oft-made point, had Just a Farmer been a foreign film, perhaps one requiring subtitles, it would likely have found an easier and wider dispersal into cinemas.

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in ‘Wicked Little Letters’.

WICKED LITTLE LETTERS *** (100 minutes) MA
The pleasantries and obscenities that run through the jagged period British comedy Wicked Little Letters serve as timely reminders of two things: that the spirit of Ealing Studios remains strong in British cinema and that the practice of sending anonymous missives full of hatred and personal abuse is not confined to the era of social media.

Based on a true story, the peculiar tale takes us to the small, inevitably picturesque coastal town of Littlehampton just after the First World War where spinster Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), still living with her parents (Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones) begins receiving letters of a very impolite nature.

The unsigned communiques contain streams of vulgarity better suited to a Joe Pesci monologue, yet the disgust with which they are received when read out aloud by Edith nonetheless suggest a hidden thrill at hearing language so improper.

Eager to land a suspect, the local constabulary targets Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), and Irish single mother whose penchant for speaking freely has earned her exactly the type of notoriety the police need to put her away.

Her very logical defence is that it makes no sense for her to be writing abusive letters anonymously seeing how happy she is to let people know what’s on her mind straight to their faces.

That’s not enough to keep the law from threatening her freedom, the deeply set prejudices seeing Rose persecuted rather than prosecuted without regard for justice or for the welfare of her music-loving daughter.

Though director Thea Sharrock, working from words by Jonny Sweet, maintains a congenial tone, the story is driven by neatly honed themes about racism and sexism, which are given voice through Constable Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) who launches her own investigation into the matter.

As far as the film’s mystery element goes, it’s all quite obvious what is actually going on and the time it takes to get there is a tad laboured.

That said, the sterling lead performances – especially from the ever-radiant Colman – propel what is essentially a fact-based fable about false accusation, bigotry and how anonymity provides the perfect cover for cowardice.

It’s a prime example of a period film with a century-old story that speaks directly to today’s culture of chicken-hearted keyboard warriors.

As unintentional as it might be, the film also honours the tradition of Ealing with its focus on a particular aspect of the British character. Granted, it’s not altogether flattering yet the values of moral fortitude and personal courage shine through all the invective. Very British, indeed.