12+ Disclosure: I have loved Ben Elton's work since watching him do stand-up comedy on TV in England in 1987. I also loved the hit TV comedies he co-wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, The Young Ones and Blackadder. And I love his writing, starting with Stark (1989) through to his most recent novel, Time and Time Again (2014). All of which made it extremely unlikely I would not love Three Summers, a film he wrote and directed, especially as my brother was the First Assistant Director on the film! But enough of the "lovey-dovey" and family disclosure, let's review the film.
Ben Elton set Three Summers in the southwest of Western Australia, at a fictional folk festival, Westifal (inspired by the annual Fairbridge Festival held in Pinjarra, 100 km south of Perth). Over three consecutive summers, we meet an ensemble cast of characters, who bring to the festival campgrounds their individual stories, some of which develop and intersect and others which don't. (Like the two middle-aged couples who meet every year at Westifal, sitting between their parallel parked VW campers to chat, eat and quaff bottles of red, without ever attending a festival event!)
The campground layout, Westival program and big tent performances will be familiar to those who've attended a Fairbridge Festival (the film used footage from Fairbridge) or even Glastonbury Festival in England (albeit there are more campervans at Westival than at Glastonbury!). Elton describes Three Summers as "Australia in a tent". The main stories are quintessentially Australian, dealing with Indigenous peoples, immigration and refugees. But the film also offers romance, teenage rebellion, folk music and more.
The ensemble cast reads like a Who's Who of Australian comedy and drama. Magda Szubanski (Queenie) is the community radio host, inviting travellers to Westifal to have a "folking good time"; Michael Caton is a cranky old Morris Dancer, an English child-immigrant, now proudly Aussie and set in his ways; Kelton Pell is the leader of an Indigenous dance troupe, educating festival goers on Indigenous Australian history, while struggling to keep his angry, headstrong young dancers out of trouble; Deborah Mailman runs AA counselling at the festival; and John Waters plays an alcoholic musician with the big tent pulsating folk-rock band, the WArrikins.
Rebecca Breeds, a boot-stomping, funky-dancing fiddle-player and vocalist with the WArrikins (and daughter of John Waters' character), and Robert Sheehan, an erudite, multi-talented musician, who dislikes all things folk and plays the theremin (which as he constantly corrects others in frustration was NOT used by the Beach Boys' in "Good Vibrations"), provide the romantic and recurring central thread in Three Summers. Theirs may not look like a match made in heaven, but they share a passion for music and, as the clique goes, opposites attract ... or do they?
Weaved around the romantic thread, Three Summers raises the historical and contemporary issues of the treatment of Australia's Indigenous peoples, the debate over immigration and the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers. The film is thought-provoking and it could make some feel uncomfortable about their views.
I attended the Ritz Cinema for the Sydney premiere of Three Summers and afterwards there was a Q&A session with writer/director Elton and star actor Caton. Although English born and bred, and England is where he made a household name for himself, Elton has spent half of the past 30 years of his life in Australia, having met his Australian wife on a "Downunder" tour in 1987 (which lead to the setting of his first novel, Stark, in Australia). During the Q&A Elton professed great pride in the local film industry and joy that he'd finally got to make an Australian film in his adopted country.
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I thoroughly enjoyed Three Summers. I laughed heartily at the funny bits, tapped my foot during the musical bits, and thought long and hard during the thoughtful bits. It's a film I've recommended to family and friends and look forward to seeing again when it opens on 2 November 2017.
While describing Three Summers neatly as "Australia in a tent", Ben Elton also said something poignant at the end of the Q&A session, which has been quoted in various reviews (eg. Sydney Morning Herald 10 August 2017): "We need to listen to each other, we need to recognise we're all in the same country on the same planet, and if we listen to each other's stories, we might perhaps understand our own." I think this summarises the goal and achievement of this beautiful film beautifully!
© 2017 Robert Fairhead
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.
His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.
Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.
His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.
Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
Further Disclosure: After the film's Q&A session, Ben Elton kindly signed my yellowed copy of his first novel and the first book of his I read way back in 1989, Stark.