|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975||Film|
|Synopsis: An imprisoned alcoholic voluntarily commits himself to a mental hospital in a bid to overcome his drinking problem, only to find that he can be detained there indefinitely.|
Storm and Haydn Keenan had studied film at the rneowned Swinburne
College of Technology in Melbourne and worked briefly in Sydney as
production assistants for the Commonwealth Film Unit, before setting up
their own company, Smart Street Films. Storm was also a close friend
and sometime lover of renowned Australian photographer Carol Jerrems.
Storm and Keenan had already made several short films includind His Prime (1972),
directed by Storm, and Stephanie
(1972) by Keenan.
The idea for the film came from a real-life controversy that erupted in Queensland in the early 1970s over the abuse of Section 27A of the Queensland Mental Health Act, under which certain patients could be detained almost indefinitely in a psychiatric institution. Storm was inspired by newspaper item he read about the problem, and he developed the script from interviews he conducted in early 1972 with Robert Somerville, whose case had sparked the controversy. The $40,000 budget was raised from a consortium of business investors plus a $13,000 grant from the Australian Film and Television School. It was mainly shot on location at a Christian Brothers psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Sydney in March 1973, and thanks to advice from film-maker Cecil Holmes, who had helped develop Storm's script, the production was meticulously planned and largely trouble-free.
The film is an often bleak and confronting look at the dark side of contemporary Australia of the 1970s. It was certainly the first local feature to deal honestly and directly with the issues of mental health, long-term incarceration and the social problems caused by drug and alcohol dependence. It is worth noting that it anticipated the Oscar-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by at least a year, and there can be little doubt that it was a direct inspiration for John Hillcoat's 1988 prison classic, Ghosts ... Of The Civil Dead.
The film begins with a clinical narration, describing the background of the main character, Billy Donald (McDarra), an alcoholic who has "sectioned" himself to try and overcome his drink problem, but who then discovers that the authorities can hold him there almost indefinitely. 27A doesn't preach, nor does it depict the various protagonists as clear-cut heroes or villains; rather, all are seen as being victims of "the system". There are references to the growing heroin problem (which was then becoming a serious social/health issue) and the status of Aboriginal detainees. A group of Aboriginal inmates (one of whom is played by the late Bob Mazza) appear repeatedly, in a silent but regular reminder of the many Aboriginal people caught up in the prison and mental health systems.
The style is episodic and impressionistic, and there is no conventional Hollywood narrative, and the film is shot largely in a documentary style. There are some jarring juxtapositions -- the bleak surroundings of the wards and the often brutal and humiliating treatment of the inmates are countered by the elegant Victorian appointments of the doctor's office and the lush countryside around the hospital. The odd camaraderie of the hospital exercise yard is contrasted with Billy's disorienting return to the city after his escape, and his awkward encounter with an old friend in a city street. There are some nice comic moments, like Billy's successful escape, which leaves his nemesis, the sadistic head nurse Cornish (Bill Hunter) bellowing impotently in the middle of a field. But there are also moments of stark drama, like Billy's forcible strip-and-shower at the hands of Cornish, and a truly harrowing sequence in which a disturbed young inmate dies in agony after swallowing razor blades.
Star Robert McDarra (himself an alcoholic) gives a superb and sympathetic performance as Billy. Threaded through the film is Billy's poignant struggle to be allowed to visit his dying wife. There is also a beautiful, dreamlike scene in which Billy has brief encounter with a young boy and his dog after his escape to the city. (The was filmed in the gutted shell of the old Ultimo powerhouse, now the Powerouse Museum) but Storm resists any mawkishness by immediately cutting away to a bizarre scene of the nurses inspecting a workmate's new car, with a strange, comic narration in a fake American accent.
Robert McDarra shines with a dignified and beautifully understated performance as Billy, and Bill Hunter is also superb as the brutal head nurse Cornish. Richard Moir (who was also the film's co-editor) makes a strong impression in one of his first film roles, playing an edgy young drug addict. The film figured prominently in the 1973 AFI Awards and was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival the following June, but distributors were wary of the film's downbeat subject matter. Eventually an independent Melbourne company, Sharmill Films, took it up for distribution and it premiered at the Playbox Cinema Mebourne on 25 July 1974
Composer Winsome Evans was the founder and leader of Sydney's famous musical group, The Renaissance Players.
The British fictional
documentary man Ken Loach took no
chances when building his case against mental institutions in Family
Life, first shown to Australian audiences about two years
ago. The methods of treatment were barbarous, the girl patient stubborn
but innocent -- a comprehending but helpless victim of pig-ignorant
parents backed by the paraphernalia of the law.
"Working on the same ground with their film 27A, the Australian team of Haydn Keenan have dared to pass up the shocks for something more complex in the way of setting and characterisation, and it works -- with a laconic, abrasive energy that makes it as entertaining as it is disturbing.
27a was finished a year ago for $45,000 plus the year that Storm, the writer-director, spent on the script. IT has already gathered its awards (a $5000 Australian Film Development Corporation prize at the 1973 Australian Film Awards is among them), and its now taking its chances commercially.
So far it's been publicised for its message and the persuasiveness of its semi-documentary tone -- which is a pity because it's a fine feature adorned with bitter and sometimes funny dialogue, rich characterisations, a sense of place (as distinct from an eagerness to exploit the picturesque) and a story line with some texture to it.
The core of it all is a performance from Robert McDarra, an actor new to me although he's been working in Sydney for years. He makes Bill Donald, the imprisoned alcoholic, whose story it is, glow with a sly, sceptical, irritating humanity that makes you care very much what happens to him. Billy has nothing working for him except suspicion and the practised desperation of the vagrant, but it proves to be all he needs.
Storm got his idea from a 1972 news story about the detention of an alcoholic in Queensland's mental institutions. The man had been sentenced to six weeks in jail on a charge of false pretences with intent to procure drugs and while denying drug addiction, admitted his alcoholism, asking to be treated. What he got was a transfer to a psychiatric clinic where he found the six-week sentence could be extended indefinitely under 27A of the Queensland Mental Health Act.
As a film dramatising a social issue, 27A has its faults. It is sometimes hazy about detail, but its atmosphere atones for that.
The institution has its villain, a bullying male nurse played called Cornish (played with off-hand malevolence by Bill Hunter) but it's the place itself, with its partitions, its corridors and its unlovely little exercise yard where the men sit in progressive stages of boredom or despair, that matters most.
Billy reacts at first like a frightened, knowing child. He objects to taking a shower, so he is half-carried to the bathroom by the gleeful Cornish who likes the enforcement part of his job best. Billy is an unlikely hero, with the shakes, blotchy skin, and a sunburn that ends at his shirt collar. His daughter comes to see him and when he runs out of the room in anger, tells the doctor that none of his children love him or even like him. He is surly and uncooperative, yet fully sympathetic in his awareness of the kind of person he is, and the film's strength is in its realisation of him.
Occasionally someone goes over the wall, heading off through a disconcertingly beautiful landscape to the city, and usually they are brought back because they haven't quite been able to figure out where to go.
The film, made in 16mm blown up for the cinema screen, looks a little rough in comparison with some of the local productions now being made on far bigger budgets. But Storm's script, the way he handles his actors and his treatment of locations make 27A the most artistically sophisticated Australian feature in some time."
- Sandra Hall, The Bulletin, 1973 (reprinted in Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review, 1984)
Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review (Rigby, 1984)