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Australia 2013
Directed by
Brendan Cowell
78 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Outlaw Michael Howe, The

Actor-turned-writer-director Brendan Cowell’s debut feature is the true-ish account of one  Michael Howe ( Damon Herriman) the leader of a gang of bushrangers in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) in the early years of British colonization and in particular his relationship with Maria Lord (Mirrah Foulkes), an ex-convict herself, and wife to the colony’s richest landowner.

Made for television by the ABC, The Outlaw Michael Howe is a well-crafted film albeit one overly disposed to depict the grimness and brutality of the early years of the island penal colony, a film which stylistically recalls Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s Van Diemen's Land of 2009.  

Whilst one might question the point of such unrelieved grimness, more damaging to the film is Cowell’s unduly schematic approach to the narrative, particularly insofar as it concerns the Maria Lord character.  As played by the lovely blonde-tressed  Mirrah Foulkes she seems designed as pointed contrast to the barbarity around her, a contrast made evident when we first encounter her striding confidently into town to confront the drunken Lieutenant-Governor and the town’s ruling elite about their failure to capture the marauding bandits. The trouble is that as the film progresses and she plays one side against the other this contrast becomes more symbolic than dramatic. But symbolic of what we never discover.

Cowell has Maria pop-up willy–nilly, whether in town or at the bushranger’s camp like some kind of fairy-tale wicked princess to sow the seeds of her evil design, a convenience which fits ill with the realism to which the film otherwise steadfastly adheres. But most damningly we never get any explanation of, or motivation for, her actions (there is some early suggestion that she went barmy after the loss of a child).  Needless to say this part of the story is all Cowell’s speculation. Not a bad idea but it, indeed the whole story of Howe’s relationship with the powers-that-be, needed more development to make it work as either history or fable. Well-acted with Matt Day turning in a notably mature performance and skillfully photographed by Simon Harding  The Outlaw Michael Howe is a film worth seeing but one not without its frustrations.

Available from: Madman




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