Every summer seems to bring with it a romantic drama filled with beautiful people, even more beautiful scenery, and the darker secrets which must be overcome on the path to love. Dirt Music, directed by Gregor Jordan and based on a novel by Tim Winton, fits this bill but falls short of its promise.
Georgie (Kelly Macdonald) does not see her life going places. She lives in a relationship of convenience—perhaps once one of love and passion, but long ago now—with fisherman Jim Buckridge (David Wenham), who has a monopoly on the fishing waters surrounding White Point, Australia. But as she wanders the coastline between her evening drinks, she sees another vessel in the mist. Of course, there is an instant spark with the poacher Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), a man whose past and present put him on a collision course with Jim.
Forbidden love stories are a dime a dozen in film, and unfortunately Dirt Music makes no compelling case for its existence. After a solid, well-paced introduction to its central players, the film takes no time or care on the interiority of the increasingly frenetic action. Lu’s characterisation particularly suffers. The flashbacks motivating his fishing existence, previous life making music on the backroads of Australia, and tormented romance with Georgie are skimmed through. This last point, the love story, plays out with even less communication than the usual cinematic romance. There is a meeting, there is the inevitable hotel rendezvous, and then their connection is immediately pushed to the back burner as the subsequent drama erupts.
Despite heroic commitment to the roles, Macdonald’s and Hedlund’s Australian accents are unconvincing, taking the film out of its otherwise meticulously crafted sense of place. Both performers bring what they can to their characters, but the script modulates on the same emotional beats throughout. As Jim, Wenham often gets the most opportunity for nuance, playing the canny businessman and devoted, if not demonstrative, father over the jilted (ex)lover to satisfying results. The most refreshing and exciting thing about this love/hate triangle is the fact that it plays out among adults approaching middle-life—a demographic often ignored by the romance genre. However, the emotional weight of lives damaged, derailed, and sleepwalked through is never given the space to land.
The result puts Dirt Music uneasily and noncommittally between genres, to its detriment. It is a film that values the beauty of its tanned stars, the longing of love through unspeakable obstacles, and an almost mythic meeting of two lost souls. In contrast to this core romantic drama ingredients is a story that explores economic precarity, past trauma, and the reality that love (however passionate) is rarely the saving grace of any life. Thus, the film’s subversion of romantic expectations feels cheap and flat rather than like a revelatory glance into precarious psyches. There are two films here, and neither work in their current form.
Visually, Dirt Music is beautifully composed, taking advantage of the natural scenery’s half-welcoming, half-hostile beauty and its changing contours as days and seasons progress. Also, while the time given to Lu’s backstory and ensuing motivations is not enough to create a compelling psychological study, the placement of the memories within the narrative works cleverly to ensure coherence without extraneous explanation.
While stunningly shot and held together by three dynamic performances, Dirt Music falls flat. The film is stuck between a sweeping tale of star-crossed lovers and a clearer-eyed take on lost souls, without the former’s commitment to destiny or the latter’s bite.
Dirt Music will be released digitally in the UK on 19th July
Words by Carmen Paddock
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