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VOD film review: High Ground

Written by Belinda

Review Overview

Performances

7/10

Sumptuous landscapes

8/10

Originality

3/10

Rating 6/10

Rating This breathtakingly shot and well-acted Western captures the brutality and beauty of the Australian Outback.

Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson Cast: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Sean Mununggurr Certificate: 15 Where to watch High Ground online in the UK: BFI Player / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI

Australian Westerns have had somewhat of a hot streak recently with the likes of Sweet Country, The Nightingale and True History of the Kelly Gang all providing memorable, visually arresting depictions of the Outback. Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s High Ground looks to continue this trend with a story centring on a 12-year-long conflict between an Aboriginal tribe and white settlers in early 20th-century Australia. While never hitting the compelling heights of the aforementioned Westerns, it weaves a mostly engaging story buoyed by superb performances by an ensemble cast of indigenous descent and lush cinematography that captures the brutality and beauty of the Australian countryside.

The film opens on the murderous event that will reverberate across the narrative – a peaceful expedition led by policeman Travis (Simon Baker) takes a violent turn resulting in the massacre of an Aboriginal community. A young boy called Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) is saved by Travis and raised by a white community – he is one of only two survivors, alongside his uncle, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr). 12 years later and Travis, now a bounty hunter, remains guilt-ridden by the violence he presided over. When the vengeful Baywara begins to orchestrate attacks on white settlements, Travis is tasked with tracking him down and enlists the service of Gutjuk to help prevent further violence.

The uneasy alliance which evolves between Travis and Gutjuk is intriguing but remains disappointingly under-developed. Focus is often frustratingly placed on Travis and the film comes dangerously close to celebrating him as a white saviour. While Baker puts in a committed turn as the pained Travis, this can’t prevent the character from feeling cliched. Many of the other white settlers also feel one-note, including Eddy (Callan Mulvey) as the film’s caricatured villainous policeman.

Gutjuk is by far the film’s most interesting character and the inner conflict he faces between his indigenous roots and his white settler upbringing is brilliantly evoked by Nayinggul’s multi-faceted turn. The newcomer delivers a remarkably mature, authentic performance that makes it easy to invest in his plight. Mununggurr is also impressive as Gutjuk’s fiercely determined, gritty uncle.

When it comes to plot, High Ground isn’t breaking any new ground. The film largely stays within the traditions of its genre when delving into Australia’s colonial history. However, Andrew Commis’ spectacular cinematography helps distinguish and elevate proceedings. Shot on location in Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, Commis captures the splendour and vastness of the Australian scenery with wide-angled wonder. Although it doesn’t match the high-standards of other recent Australian Westerns, High Ground is a trip worth taking thanks to its breathtakingly shot landscapes and nuanced performances.

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