Movie Review: ‘Three Summers’


Director: Ben Elton

Cast: Robert Sheehan, Rebecca Breeds, Michael Caton, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman, Jacqueline McKenzie, John Waters

Plot: A cross section of West Australian culture and attitudes is showcased during three years at the ‘Westival’ Folk Music Festival. We see a romance develop, changing values clash and plenty of comedy.

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Review: Now I know that most of you wonderful people are over in the United States, but I’m Down Under. Western Australia to be exact. Let me tell you about it: Western Australia is the largest of the seven states that make up Australia and is the most sparsely populated. Wolf Creek took place here. Our city, Perth, is very clean but 2,700km (that’s 1,650 miles to you lot) from the nearest city and that’s only Adelaide. Basically when you’re in Perth you are IN Perth. People who spend time in other cities never return because it’s such a bloody hassle moving back. No-one actually moves here.

Except Ben Elton. He moved here. The stand-up comic who created Blackadder and The Young Ones, writer of smash hit musicals We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies and the author of many, many best-selling novels is one of the very few people to move to Perth, Western Australia.

And darn if he didn’t just go and make the definitive Western Australian movie.

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On the surface this looks to be a feel-good romp with a quirky small town aesthetic, but the full film turns out to be a much smarter piece of cinema which touches on major social issues important to the people of this peculiar state. The takes place almost exclusively at the Westival Folk Music Festival, a fictionalised version of the Fairbridge Festival. We revisit the event three times, one year over the other, and rejoin the same festival-goers to get an update on their lives. We have a pretentious theremin player (Sheehan) who doesn’t want to be a crowd-pleaser, a fiddle player (Breeds) heading up her father’s (Waters) popular folk band, a Morris Dancer (Caton) defending his Australian heritage, a mob of Indigenous dancers, a young adopted refugee boy, an all-girl punk rock band, a power-wielding security guard, wine-drinking empty-nesters and local radio host Queenie (Szubanski).

That is enough characters to warrant an appearance by Thanos, but it’s writer-director Ben Elton’s experience in constructing a story that makes it work. The three festival structure is the perfect foundation on which to build running jokes. The empty-nesters are a prime example of this. They only get four or five short scenes but in that time they’ve set up a couple of running gags, established a conflict and produce a side-splitting resolution.

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The stars of the show are Sheehan and Breeds, a pair of mismatched musicians who immediately form a heated connection. They share great chemistry and have an easy charm that even when they’re being stubborn or complete wankers they’re still entertaining. We were surprised to learn they were only miming playing their instruments as they looked the business through and through.

Amid this whirlwind romance we have some very real issues that Australians have been debating for years. Indigenous land rights and cultural recognition, the Stolen Generation and victims of the Home Children program, the plight of refugees and Australia’s shocking ongoing practise of refugee detention centres, Australian cultural identity and more all feature in the film’s plot. More shockingly it never feels forced or preachy. Instead we get a level headed, respectful and entertaining reflection of local attitudes and fears. Comedy is well utilised to defuse what has been some of the most emotionally driven discussions in local media.

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Topping everything off is a cracking good soundtrack almost entirely made up of local acts like John Butler Trio, Little Birdy and Birds of Tokyo. Australian music doesn’t often break into the States, with the previous hit single prior to Goyte being the decades old Savage Garden, which is embarrassing. Music fans who don’t know much about Australian output, check out this soundtrack and find some new favourite acts.

Yes, I’m biased reviewing this film because I’m a local and a huge fan of Ben Elton’s work. But I challenge you (yes, you Franklin) to watch this movie and not feel a bit of love for it. It’s brilliantly well written and charmingly funny. It’s not flash, but it’s fun and heartwarming and it perfectly captures the tone of a quieter corner of the Western World.

Rating: NINE out of TEN

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