In a national film industry that exerts more effort trying to find itself than in making original films, there is Australian cinema and then there’s Aussie Movies. The Cup is a ridgy-didge Aussie movie, roll-calling seasoned Australian actors alongside lowbrow TV personalities, sporting heroes, AFL footage, the Melbourne Cup, a few naff shots of Sydney Harbour and the kind of blokey slang I just don’t think exists outside of bushranger gangs or two-up circles at the Buffalo Club.
The Cup is the brainchild of writer/director Simon Wincer, veteran of the Australian film industry and passionate advocate of the kind of Australiana that we might associate with the late 1990’s, the end of VHS, fake tan, the birth of reality TV and heyday of first wave Australian sketch comedy (no surprise Shawn Micallef pops up in The Cup, as himself). Wincer has previously brought us Quigley Down Under starring the always-enjoyable Tom Sellick, and all of the grace and wit of Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. This back catalogue of films in which Aussies encounter the world and are deemed parochial but decent seems to be a good platform upon which to examine The Cup, which is a film needing international approval to be a success, yet constantly flirts with self-congratulation on the home front.
Based on a true story, The Cup is a very faithful dramatization of the lead-up to the 2002 Melbourne Cup international horse race, encompassing other events from the time, like the devastating Bali bombings and an elongated history of that year’s football. In particular it tells the story of Damien Oliver (played by Stephen Curry, of ‘Dale dug a hole’ fame), a leading jockey from Perth booked to ride a real contender called Media Puzzle. Then in the midst of the press rumour frenzy and formidable international competition, his brother, fellow jockey Jason, died in hospital after falling under his horse at full gallop. Damien’s preparation is stopped short as he battles with his mother to bear the loss, made all the more tragic for the memory of his jockey father, who died when he was a child in the very same manner. Suddenly the four million dollar question was ‘can he still ride in the Race That Stops the Nation’?
There are innumerable issues to be had with the way The Cup has been put together. A rainbow of clumsy editing, writing, casting, shooting and costuming decisions encircle the emotional core of this film like a thorny forest. To name a few: the flow of The Cup is a major structural flaw. It reads like a feature-length montage, in which dramatic sequences are too short and peripheral shots are too long, meeting in an unsatisfying middle ground. It creates a sense of irrelevance when for example; there is a five-second shot of a hand using a remote control amidst a dialogue sequence so breif it seems paraphrased. One is too long, the other too short. Basic casting mis-steps include allowing Jodi Gordon out of the Home and Away stable and the premature graduation of Alice Parkinson from Blue Water High. Other qualms include constant zooming into people’s faces to ‘enhance’ the mood á la hammy Brunei Airlounge soap opera, a pointlessly long AFL scene using stock footage and cameo appearances from Dennis Commetti and Eddie Maguire (I feel I cannot italicise that enough) and truly ridiculous dialogue between Damien and his girlfriend Trish. What de facto couple converse with ‘I just want to let you know I’m here for you’ and ‘I got this scar in 1999, this one in ‘93, it’s all just part of being a jockey’. Oh, and did I mention the score is the worst kind of over sentimental, off-season daytime instrumental music?
I guess a lot of these problems stem from the fact that The Cup is such a great story, an Australian story (if you will allow me to pun on serious television), and Wincer has become very protective of it. He wants it to belong to Australia but to be lucrative elsewhere, resulting in a grab bag of Aussie in-jokes that international audiences simply won’t appreciate, and a kind of overplayed reprieve in the dialogue describing how we own the cup and we own our nation. The Cup is a film anxious about how the greater Western world rates our cinema and so it ends up being about how we don’t need the rest of the world, because we Aussies have each other. If anything proves this it is The Cup’s cultural outlook: clichéd portrayals of unsmiling Arab Sheiks with great posture, tinny Irish panpipe ditties played over every single scene set in Ireland, and a French radio announcer babbling about the Arc Du Triomph. These are symptoms of a tendency to over-colloquialise everything.
Despite these disappointments, the tragic elegy for the Oliver family and their triumph over grief is has an exceptional narrative arc and manages to find a voice, particularly towards the end of the film. The emotional build-up is highly charged, stripping away all of the periphery details to get to the point: the people. This is where Stephen Curry steps up to reach the high calibre that Brendan Gleeson (playing Horse Trainer Dermot Weld) alone maintained for the entire film. Curry’s wounded and confused Oliver is a modest and recognisable portrayal of grief.
The Cup is a film that I have no doubt would have been applauded if it had been released 12 or so years ago. This is the kind of movie I would have watched in between episodes of Who Dares Wins and Gladiators, as part of a midday TV program that also included a dramatization of the Stuart Diver/Thredbo disaster or Alaskan fire-fighter Robert Bogucki’s 43-day outback ordeal in the Great Sandy Desert. It’s not just the story is nearly a decade old, but the whole approach to the way the film is made, the music, the cutting, the stock footage seems dated. Wincer and his way of making movies seem to hail from that era before 9/11, before Australia needed to forge a professional, not gimmicky relationship with other countries, when its defiant, autobiographical cultural pursuits outweighed the desire to understand the world and Australia’s place in it, when we were still croc hunters, full forwards and bush tuckermen to ourselves as well as the world.
This is a movie I wish I could be more excited about, but it did make me think about what I want Australia to look like, culturally, to foreign nations all around the world. Do I want people to believe I have a pet kangaroo tethered near the red dirt at the end of my driveway? That every Cup day I pick sweeps out of an Akubra and punch the air with truckies over VB in a pub. Less superficially – do I want Australia to be a self-styled underdog? To eschew global collaborations or friendships? To me, these are concerns of the past. Australia is in a new era of culture and its film industry is for the most part progressing apace with the rest of world cinema.
Maybe we'll get it third time lucky: The Cup, The Dish, The Tongs?