Wake in Fright (1971)

Review first published by Film4.

Synopsis: Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) directs this paranoid tale of a teacher’s lofty ideas brought low in the Australian outback.

Review: In the opening aerial shot of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback), the thin line between civilisation and bestiality, education and addiction, discipline and excess, is figured as a dustblown rail track snaking between the only two buildings in outback Tiboonda’s ‘centre’: a one-room school, and a pub.

Completing his last class for the year, indentured teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) symbolically crosses this line to pick up his suitcase and have one last drink (emphatically a ‘midi’, or half measure) before catching the train to his girlfriend in Sydney. En route, this middle-class, standoffish man of culture becomes both stuck and unstuck in Bundanyabba after a night of boozing and gambling leaves him stripped of his vanities. Under the more self-aware tutelage of Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence at his very best), Grant will be confronted with the realities of his own, deeply Australian character.

Despite the title (taken from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel), Wake In Fright derives its brand of feral menace not from monsters, masked killers, or any of the other avatars of conventional horror, but rather from a sober-eyed perspective on a society reeling under the malign influence of its own basest impulses. A circular nightmare of one man’s descent into his own – and his nation’s – nature, the film exposes to the unforgiving sun’s glare (or to a mesmerising roo-hunter’s spotlight) all the more insalubrious aspects of Aussie life that never make it into the tourism ads: the deep-seated cultural cringe, the passive-aggressive mateship, the levelling ‘tall poppy syndrome’, the homosocial misogyny, the alcohol-fuelled abandon.

Long thought lost, but rediscovered and digitally restored in the late Noughties, Terry Kotcheff’s Kafkaesque classic from Down Under can now be seen again in all its widescreen grandeur – and should not be missed.

In A Nutshell: A slow, circling descent into Australia’s dark, deep-drinking soul – and one of the nation’s greatest, if most confronting films.

Anton Bitel