Review: David Stratton: A Cinematic Life

An amiable wander through much-loved corners of Australian cinema. Patchy, but nonetheless endearing.

For almost thirty years and across both public broadcasters, David Stratton was a steadfastly serious counterpart to the more irreverent Margaret Pomeranz as Australian television’s most instantly recognisable movie reviewers.

Even as they regularly, wildly clashed, most notably with Pomeranz’ five-star take on Romper Stomper versus none from Stratton, their support of the nation’s cinematic output was never in doubt,

Documentary filmmaker Sally Aitken’s David Stratton: A Cinematic Life is an amiable, two-headed beast that presents Stratton’s knowledgeable, though far from exhaustive, walk through of that canon, whilst also providing a little, though not enough, background on the man himself.

Harking back to cinema’s birth in Melbourne with Charles Tait’s 1906 silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang, for the most part Stratton focuses on the new wave and genre-bursting hits of the 70s, with Wake In Fright his most treasured, but also Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career. Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom appear to be his favoured recent-ish movies, alongside Animal Kingdom and Samson and Delilah.

Indeed, of all the film’s discussed, the most probing commentary comes not from Stratton himself, though there’s nothing wrong per se with his loving reminiscence so clearly intended to bring new audiences to classics, but from Rachel Perkins and Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton. Their discussion of indigenous representation from 1955’s Jedda right up to Thornton’s breakout hit is a definite highlight.

On the personal side, Stratton’s obviously still-painful fractious relationship with his now-dead father offers the most emotional glimpse into the heart of the Englishman who left his mother country behind in 1963, as well as the expectation he would return to take over the family grocery business. But there are some frustrating gaps in this rebellious timeline. For instance, we’re told in one breath of his volunteering as an usher for the Sydney Film Festival, and a moment later he’s the festival director, with no clue whatsoever as to how such a stratospheric leap might have occurred.

The culprit here, most likely, is in the editing suite. David Stratton: A Cinematic Life will be expanded upon in a three-part series for the ABC entitled Stories of Australian Cinema, which will hopefully allow for a little more insight into the man behind the public persona, including another intimate moment regarding his mother’s eventual understanding that he simply had to walk his own path.

Talking heads line up to sing Stratton’s praises, including Nicole Kidman, Judy Davis, Rachel Griffiths, Gillian Armstrong, Geoffrey Rush and Russell Crowe, while Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright is still, clearly, not over Stratton’s review abdication.

Pomeranz teasingly salts that open wound, suggesting that the slighted filmmaker adores the medium just as much as the reviewer who chastised him for, as Stratton sees it, an uncritical presentation of Nazism.

While their careers orbiting the film industry began many years before they met and continue separately, the doco sparks to energetic life when Pomeranz sits by his side to reflect on their time together, beamed into living rooms the land over. Their mutual respect was always evident under the occasionally sniping surface, and for some this temporary screen reunion will undoubtedly leave them hankering for more.

If the gaps feel a little odd in Aitken’s doco, then the good intentions paper over the cracks. David Stratton: A Cinematic Life really is a labour of love that will hopefully improve with the greater space afforded by the ABC series.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords