Charlie (David Gulpilil), a silver-haired Aborigine in his late middle age, lives in a rural Australian settlement that’s predominantly inhabited by other natives. The local authorities, however, are mostly white, including his supposed friend Luke (Luke Ford), a young cop recently assigned to the settlement. The two exchange friendly racist banter, which will turn bitter in their mouths by film’s end. Charlie doesn’t have much outside of his rundown shack, but his sense of humor and friendships help him get by, especially that of Black Pete (Peter Djigirr). When the two unknowingly run afoul of the law by simply living in the “old way,” Charlie escapes from society into the bush, setting off a chain of increasingly picaresque misadventures that will leave him chastened and perhaps wiser about his place (or lack thereof) in his country.
In Charlie’s Country, the question of aboriginal disenfranchisement is an overt one. Charlie asks a white aid worker why he has a house and a job on aboriginal land and Charlie doesn’t. Director and co-writer Rolf de Heer, who’s made several acclaimed films about the Australian aboriginal experience, stacks the moral/ethical deck in favor of Charlie and the other natives, who are depicted as well-meaning innocents constantly being abused and thwarted by arrogant whites who fail to understand their basic grievances. The natives are imprisoned and marginalized by white society simply for following their cultural traditions, and the best they can expect from the whites is for them to occasionally look the other way at their (mostly innocuous) crimes. Co-written by Gulpilil, the film clearly tries to let the aborigines speak for themselves, but the result is somehow predictably parochial, leaving a lingering impression that the aborigines are incapable of helping themselves. Like so many well-meaning depictions of native life helmed by non-native directors, the film seems to reinforce the notion that white people are both the sole cause of the natives’ problems and the only possible solution to them.
The aborigines are portrayed as being mostly a good-natured, fun-loving bunch that nevertheless bear white society’s harassment with a stoic demeanor. The exceptions to this generalized representation are Gulpilil and Djigirr, who embody their characters with nuance, grace, and effervescent humor. Charlie and Pete’s friendship, though short on words, emits a strain of deep pathos and sympathy, and the actors’ time together on screen is a master class of understated characterization. Shifting rapidly between bawdy jokes and quiet empathy, their interactions say far more about the struggles, perseverance, and complex humanity of their people than Charlie’s numerous, one-sided run-ins with the law.
Every white person that Charlie meets doesn’t get it—that their country is actually Charlie’s country—in precisely the same way. They’ve usurped the aborigines’ land, and don’t even have the decency to know it. In case the audience also doesn’t get it, Charlie is shown making incessant walkabouts, through bush, village, and city, to the same monotonous music, contrasting his physical connection to the land with his legal marginalization. And while the countless close-ups of Gulpilil’s weathered, eloquent face work most of the time, partially making up for the film’s minimal, often banal dialogue, that too gets wearying by the end. Despite some first-rate performances, Charlie’s Country finally offers little more than a moderately engaging slice of contemporary aboriginal life that mostly fails to dig beneath the surface of this underrepresented world.