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online exclusive - april 27


true aussie diggers

kirsten krauth: jeremy sims’ beneath hill 60


Beneath Hill 60 Beneath Hill 60
photo Wendy McDougall
"TUNNELLING WAS CONSIDERED AN UNGENTLEMANLY WAY OF CONDUCTING WARFARE, IT WASN’T CONSIDERED HONOURABLE. THE GENTLEMANLY WAY TO CONDUCT WARFARE WAS TO CLIMB OUT OF A TRENCH, OVER A PARAPET AND RUN TOWARDS ENEMY LINES WITH A RIFLE...WITH AN AVERAGE AGE OF 42, A LOT OF THE TUNNELLERS HAD DUST ON THEIR LUNGS FROM THEIR MINING DAYS. THEY WERE SICK AND DYING MEN WHEN THEY WENT TO WAR...AFTER THE HOSTILITIES THEY FADED AWAY VERY QUICKLY." Ross Thomas, Executive Producer, Beneath Hill 60

Jeremy Sims’ first feature Last Train to Freo (2006) was notable for its intense sense of foreboding. A woman caught on a train late at night, trapped by the cat-like menace of an unpredictable man fresh out of prison and hell-bent on confrontation, the film’s real-time unravelling created an acute atmosphere of fear and isolation, that moment when life suddenly spins out of your control. Producer Bill Leimbach (who directed the documentary Gallipoli: The Untold Stories) imagined Sims might be the perfect director for another claustrophobic tale—but here on an epic scale—about a group of Australian civilian miners, called up in World War I, given two weeks rudimentary training, and sent to the hellhole Western front, to start digging and laying mines under the German-held Hill 60.

With the opening scene—a soldier tying his bootlaces up, adjusting his belt, putting his sword in its sheath—we are introduced to the detail of soldierly life. But mining engineer Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell) is not your regular soldier. As a civilian, he (and the audience) are rapidly deposited into the tunnels near Armentières, northern France, 30 feet below, where carrying a candle through the darkness, scuttering about like a rat in a maze, his introduction to the men, as their new commanding officer, is: :I can’t seem to find my way out."

The men use an instrument like a stethoscope to hear through the walls, catching any sounds that may be Germans digging tunnels themselves, or sinking mine shafts. A young boy, Frank Tiffin (Harrison Gilbertson, outstanding as Daniel in Ana Kokkinos’ Blessed [2009], and starring in Andrew Lancaster's recently released Accidents Happen alongside Geena Davis), paralysed with fear and alone in the dark, is introduced to Woodward. He says he thinks he hears something. With a tap tap, Woodward reveals to the boy that he’s hearing his own heartbeat. As bombs explode around them and rattle the scaffolding, the men hold their cups of tea steady.

Although the underground world is dank and closed in, at least it’s sheltered from noise and rain. As Woodward surfaces for air, his short walk to the officers’ dug-outs (dramatically realised by DOP Toby Oliver, who also worked on Last Train to Freo and, more recently, David Field's The Combination [2009]) brings home the true horror of men in the trenches, squirming in the mud and rain, bloody body parts left to rot, the continual sonic assault. An introduction to British officer Clayton (Leon Ford) is a reminder of other Australian classics of the war genre, Gallipoli (1981) and Breaker Morant (1980), with laconic Aussies pitted against the English class system in the shape of officers with little pity for the soldiers they’re overseeing. I wish for shades of grey here, beyond the clichés, some insight into these obnoxious Brits, but it’s clearly the way they were seen by many Australian soldiers—the stereotypes persist.

Harrison Gilbertson, Beneath Hill 60 Harrison Gilbertson, Beneath Hill 60
photo Wendy McDougall
Sims has extensive theatrical experience and his strength as a director is clearly in terms of working with actors, especially the younger cast, and ensuring wonderful delivery of idiomatic Aussie dialogue, which rises above sentimentality or uber-nostalgia and goes beyond the well-worn treads of mateship. Although a fine actor, always exciting on screen, the casting of Cowell, however, just doesn’t quite fit: he’s been through so much 30-something angst (the TV series Love My Way; Matthew Saville's Noise [2007]) that all the soft lighting and makeup in the world can’t make him a believable lad in his 20s, coveting a 16-year-old girl.

The flashbacks to the Queensland homestead, where he teases and seduces the girl (Bella Heathcote), take away crucial pace from a film trying to recreate the dramatic tension of men risking their lives underground. It’s such a long and complicated plotline that by the time the men actually reach the Hill (the bloodiest battle on the Western Front, along the Messines Ridge in Belgium), where the tension should be peaking, the dramatics have started to soak back into the soil, slowly oozing out rivulets from the mine, like the reluctant pump Woodward sets up in front of his superiors. I longed for the tension created in a similar film caught in confined spaces, Das Boot (Wolfang Petersen, 1091), and think with a more focused script and fewer ‘diversions’, Sims and writer David Roach could have achieved it. He also chooses to focus on two German miners on the other side of the wall and while this could have made a wonderfully dramatic connection between the Germans and Australians, the narrative device too leaks the tension rather than building it.

The men, by tunnelling into the blue clay of Flanders beneath enemy lines, are able to lay enough explosives so that the bang, when it arrives, is the largest that the world has ever seen. Sims does well to give a big budget feel to a film that doesn’t have one, transforming sunny Townsville via a rain machine into the quagmires of France and Belgium. It’s an immensely ambitious project with a captivating story that’s taken 90 years to reach the surface. For the most part, Sims and his strong ensemble cast bring the feature to life with more force than many US action flicks can manage.


Beneath Hill 60, director Jeremy Hartley Sims, producer Bill Leimbach, writer David Roach, cinematographer Toby Oliver, composer Cezary Skubiszewski, editor Dany Cooper, production designer Clayton Jauncey, www.beneathhill60movie.com.au

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. web

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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