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Australia 2020
Directed by
Stephen Johnson
104 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

High Ground

Set in Arnhem Land in Top End of Australia in the early 20th century High Ground opens with a brutal massacre of an Aboriginal family by Whites in a police raid led by Eddy (Callan Mulvey) gone horribly wrong. Travis (Simon Baker), a marksman, quits the group in disgust after saving a small boy, Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr).

Jump twelve years forward and Gutjuk, now called Tommy, is living on a small Christian mission run by Pastor Braddock (Ryan Corr) and his sister Claire (Caren Pistorius). Travis is working as a trapper based at the mission when Eddy reappears searching for Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), Gutjuk’s uncle and the sole survivor of the raid, who has conducted a guerilla war with the Whites ever since. Accompanying Eddy is Moran (Jack Thompson), the police chief for the area who explains that Baywara has “crossed the line” by killing a White woman and must be terminated with extreme prejudice (so to speak). In order to prevent another fiasco Travis offers to bring Baywara in and recruits Tommy as his tracker.  But Gutjuk hasn’t forgotten what was done to his family and sees an opportunity for revenge on the Whitefellas.

Director Johnson’s first feature since his 2001 debut with Yolgnu Boy (his other credits have been in television) High Ground is confidently directed by Johnson aided by a verisimilitudinous production design and related art department values along with fine landscape cinematography. With solid performances all round from a cast of largely inexperienced indigenous actors (Sean Mununggurr played one of the teenage boys in Yolngu Boy), it is a combination that transports us back to the story’s time and place - late colonial White Australia, In this respect Jack Thompson is in his element as The King’s man, the confrontation between Moran and Gutjuk's grandfather (Wityana Marika) being one of the film's stand-out moments

The film’s title refers to a nugget of military strategy that Travis Imparts to Gutjuk (now played as a young man by Jacob Junior Nayinggul): “When you’ve got the high ground you control everything”.  It seems however that Johnson and his scriptwriter Chris Anastassiades (who wrote Yolngu Boy) intends us to take this ironically. Certainly on the two occasions we see Travis on high ground the outcome is anything but control. Quite the opposite in fact as the first occasion leads to the mayhemic massacre, the second to Travis’s own demise.

Effective and “entertaining” as High Ground is it owes a palpable debt to Hollywood genre conventions, particularly those of the frontier Western and this tends to limit our identification with the specifics of the story. More significantly the film neglects to develop certain characters. Ryan Corr especially is under-exposed as Pastor Braddock who spends the entire film on the sidelines. There is an implication that his sister, Claire, has had or is having an affair with Travis (understandable given Baker’s leading man good looks) but she also could have received more attention. Too, the relationship between Travis and Gutjuk seems improbably oblique. Is Travis really not aware of Tommy’s true identity?  

There are parallels here with Jane Campion’s soon-to-be-released Western set at roughly the same time, The Power Of The Dog (2021)  in which a young man extracts his revenge on an older male.  Campion’s film is tonally truer to its darkness, its characters more rounded, their relationships more developed. And while I’m nitpicking, with the exception of Gutjuk no-one seems to have aged over the twelve years that are supposed to have elapsed.

Although dramatically somewhat compromised by its conventionality High Ground is still a finely-crafted film well worthy of your attention.  




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