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Australian dockyard workers go on strike. Immigrant Italian workers are brought in as scab labour. In the midst of all this, an Italian woman meets & falls in love with one of the Australians. Written by
Steve Crook <email@example.com>
An engrossing mini-series on the violent labour disputes of 1920s Australia
Set in late 1920s Melbourne, WATERFRONT begins with the Waterside Workers' Union refusing to abide by the award-conditions handed down with the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. The waterfronts of Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne are effectively shut down. Nationalist Party Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, authorizes legislation permitting the employment of non-union labour on the wharves and the shipping bosses respond by hiring newly arrived Italian immigrants desperate for work. These 'scabs' face expected bitter resentment by the Union as well as shameful and overt racial intimidation and abuse.
The ruse of 'free labourers' ultimately works in all the capital cities but Melbourne, where the Union executive is strong and determined. Not only are the bosses determined to ride the storm out, but the union comes under increasing hostility from other sections of the community - the strike's consequences extend into neighbouring industries which, starved of raw materials and export passages, are forced to make redundancies. WATERFRONT portrays the eviction, poverty, and racism with deft sensitivity, never retreating into gross caricatures.
While the State Labor Government, with a paper-thin majority, is put in the unenviable position of having to support the unions - its political base - it must find a seemingly illusive solution to a problem that is crippling the state. The Victorian Opposition plans to introduce a motion of no-confidence in the government, and courts the patrician Governor-General, who ultimately dismisses the incumbent government.
Jack Thompson turns in a lovely performance as Max Woodbury, an apolitical, but happy go-lucky minor Union official, who has the leadership thrust upon him after the deaths of circuit-breaker Sam (Syd Barrett) and principled, but naive socialist (Chris Haywood). Greta Scacchi plays the beautiful Anna Chieri, the resourceful daughter of a political professor who has recently escaped from Mussolini's Italy. Her father is killed in a bungled attempt at scaring-off Woodbury, into whose arms she walls when she seeks out her father's murderers.
There are some strong female roles here as wives of the strikers who ultimately come to value 'people over principles.' This is a splendidly photographed piece, with great attention to period authenticity. The entrenched racism the Italians experience is portrayed in a realistic and often brutal way. This is Old Australia where beer is drunken with steak-and-eggs or mixed-grill, everything is closed on Sunday (to the amazement of even continental Catholics!) and the billy-clubs have never been shinier. To its credit, the filmmaker's never imposes a simple solution on the crisis, and while broadly pro-Union, never paint the shipping bosses as irredeemably, rabid, capitalist machine-men.
It is difficult to maintain unquestioned sympathy and respect with the union's position, when many of its members being painted (probably very truthfully) as sexist bigots. WATERFRONT could very easily have been condense into an enjoyable movie, or perhaps even expanded into a full-blown series that expanded into Australian life during the 1920s more generally. At 300 minutes, WATERFRONT might be a little bit too long. The Third Act romance between Thompson and Scacchi seems a hackneyed plot device, although the two perform their parts exceptionally.
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