“The Furnace” (MA) **** and a half
SET in WA in 1897, writer/director Roderick MacKay’s dramatic film tells a story about gold, camels, Islamist and Sikh cameleers, Chinese immigrants and crime.
Quite a mouthful of ingredients for the filmgoer to digest, but an example of Australian cinema at its best. The acting is top quality. The locations (shot around Kalbarri and Mt Magnet) are sere, dusty, with scanty vegetation, combining each in their unique way and despite lacking tenderness or gentleness, combining to give the film an ongoing beauty and emphasising the challenge that the outback throws in the face of all who seek to conquer it.
There aren’t many Australian films in which the actor playing one of the two principal characters is of an Egyptian family, aged 24 when he starred in this, his 23rd film. Ahmad Malek plays Hanif, a cameleer whose path crosses that of Mal, a white man guarding stolen gold bars carrying the Crown cypher. David Wenham is close to unrecognisable in that role – scraggly beard, lank unkempt hair, clothes needing a wash more than his body.
Police Sgt Shaw (Jay Ryan) with three troopers, one of whom is his son Sam (Samson Coulter) is trying to maintain law and order in the miners’ camp. And beyond the camp Zhan Mei (Amanda Ma) with her sons will stop at nothing to get control of the gold.
The tensions build as Mal tries to dominate Afghani Hanif whose camel is the only means of transport for the pair. It’s a well-trained animal with a future in movies, but no name credit in this one. There is also a large contingent of named indigenous Australians, predominantly men, playing characters who do as they’re told.
The film has only one significant shortcoming. In the sequence where Shaw and the troopers confront Mei and her sons, there’s a lot of shooting, none with any apparent target. That’s how Hollywood does such situations, with characters falling down on cue. We can do it better. But it’s a relatively small blemish in a very fine, strong, Australian film.