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Australia 2021
Directed by
Justin Kurzel
112 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant, who were also co-producers of this film, return the heart of Australian darkness ten years after their remarkable real-life serial killer film, Snowtown (2011)

“Australian darkness” is probably a bit strong as Nitram is more about an individual aberration than a cultural mind-set but underpinning it is a certain socially-ingrained crudity and callousness. Its real-life subject, the twenty-nine year old Martin Bryant, who apparently had the mental capacity of a six-year-old and who, although the film doesn’t name it as such, was a victim of autism or perhaps severe Asperger’s. What it does make clear is that from his childhood Bryant was bullied for his difference and ostracized as a young adult, that his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, both excellent) could barely cope with him, the only medical care he received was anti-depressants and institutional support was non-existent. His tragic response to a desperate need for recognition was a killing spree in April 1996 in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur during which he murdered thirty-five people and wounded twenty-three others.

In the lead role American actor Caleb Landry Jones gives an outstanding interpretation of Bryant (he won Best Actor at Cannes for his efforts), one that is both sympathetic yet largely affectless. The film also reveal what many people will not be aware of, Bryant’s strange relationship with 54-year-old Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey (Essie Davis, no relation to Judy, and adding another feather to her cap), a dog-loving eccentric and heiress to the Tattersall's lottery fortune. Harvey, whose death in a car accident many believe was probably caused by Bryant, left everything to the young man, ironically, making him wealthy.

As with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) Kurzel and Grant wisely do not depict any of the killings, nor is the Bryant family name ever mentioned, even filming the production in Geelong in Victoria so as to avoid opening old wounds. It does however address the gun debate with a brilliant scene in a gun shop and telling us via an end-title that, despite Prime Minister John Howard’s changes to regulations immediately after the massacre that there are now more firearms owned in Australia than there were in 1996.

Whilst Kurzel never strains for dramatic effect but rather steadfastly adheres to the awful mundanity of events, he has done himself no favours with the title of his film. Don't be deterred, Nitram is a sensitive, substantial film.




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