I'd like to be able to say that this was a terrific re-creation of a pivotal moment in Australian history (which by and large is not very exciting) but alas the financiers determined that the producers would get only 90 minutes on the ABC instead of the 4x90 mini-series they had in mind. Thus the story of Australia's reaction to Japan entering the war in December 1941 and the rude awakening that mother Britain had used and abandoned us has been truncated into a series of vignettes rather than a coherent drama. William McInnes as Curtin carries the show; his support cast are not much more than props, though William Zappa as Chief of Staff General Sturdee (one of the unsung heroes of the war) puts in a strong performance. Australia's moment of truth then becomes Curtin's personal battle against self-doubt, though it will be observed that the war cabinet unanimously backed his (and General Sturdee's) proposal to recall the two Australian Divisions from the Middle East. Even Anglophile Menzies (Bille Brown unfortunately miscast) was in favour. It was a gamble, but it paid off, and those two Divisions were instrumental in driving the Japanese out of New Guinea later in the war (but that's another recent movie, "Kokoda").
I didn't know much about Curtin before I saw this film other than that he was a former journalist and reformed alcoholic who became prime minister at the darkest point of the war for Australia, October 1941, and made a fair fist of it, but killing himself through worry and overwork in the process. McInnes portrays him as a diffident family man who had greatness thrust upon him, but this does not quite convince anyone who has kept a fractious and divided opposition together for five years (and goes on to win a handsome electoral victory in 1943) is an accomplished politician. In fact historians credit Curtin with rehabilitating the Australian Labor party after the splits of the early thirties, drawing the Lang-ites from NSW (Eddie Ward and Stabber Jack Beasley for example, depicted in this film as opponents) back into the party.
It was interesting that Curtin was friendly with the Japanese Ambassador prior to Japan bombing Pearl Harbour and was warned by him about the Japanese military intentions. It was not clear however whether this intelligence was of much use. Early on, General Sturdee points out forcefully that nothing can stop the Japanese war machine dominating the South Pacific except of course the Americans. I suppose we were very lucky Pearl Harbour was bombed. Relations with the UK are very sketchily outlined, those with the Americans are hardly described at all.
What we have left then is a sombre, well crafted *hagiography of a rather elusive figure from Australian political history, well acted and shot with that real dim, grim 1940s feel. It's the kind of show the ABC should be doing at much greater length.
* Hagiography: writings about the lives of saints
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