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Review and Critical Uptake - The Year My Voice Broke

Plot Synopsis

'The Year My Voice Broke' is set in country New South Wales in 1962. Danny is an awkward fifteen year old, in love with his childhood sweetheart Freya, who is now sixteen. Through the course of the film, Danny watches closely as Freya, orphaned as a baby, becomes attracted to Trevor. Trevor (who Danny calls a "meat-head thug") is something of a local rugby hero who has a tendency for minor crime and general lighthearted trouble making. Trevor and Freya's relationship quickly blossoms and as a result Freya becomes pregnant. At this time, Trevor is arrested for stealing a car. He escapes the detention centre and commits a robbery, and whilst trying to escape from police, is killed in a car crash. Freya's pregnancy is the source of much malicious gossip around the town and it seems that Danny is now her only true friend. Freya then has a miscarriage and decides to leave the town. Danny and Freya's sister Gail go to the station to bid their farewells and shortly after, Danny realises he will never see Freya again.

The movie contains a sideline plot centred around the circumstances of Freya's adoption. It turns out that Freya's mother was Sarah Amery, the past resident of what the town kids call the "haunted house". This house plays a significant part in Danny, Freya and Trevor's relationship and is the scene of Trevor's ill-fated escape from the law, and Freya's miscarriage. Sarah Amery was a prostitute of sorts in the town, and consequently very few details about her are available from the older members of the community, who are remarkably closed lipped about the affair. It seems Sarah died while giving birth to Freya, and the Olson family subsequently adopted Freya.

Personal Notes and Review

Having seen 'The Year My Voice Broke' for the first time when I was roughly the same age as the character of Danny, I was apprehensive that a critical adult viewing would prove disappointing in many ways. I was genuinely pleasantly surprised with the film this time around however. The cinematography (the realm of Geoff Burton, whose career of some thirty-nine films include 'The Sum of Us', 'Sirens', 'Hotel Sorrento', 'The Nostradamus Kid' and 'Flirting') is simply stunning. Although a very common feature in Australian Cinema, the sweeping landscapes and resultant mind-boggling desolation are remarkably well presented and never seem cliched or even familiar.

Also, I was heartened by the film's refusal to lapse into cliché, which would have been very easy given the teenage tragedy setup. At all times there is an uncertainty, a discomfort about the film that keeps it above the level of simple coming-of-age drama. In the January 1998 issue of Cinema Papers, John Duigan talks about the character of Danny and suggests that "they [people who live on the fringes of society] perceive both the society of which they are on the fringes, and also the world in general quite differently". For me, this is perhaps the most important part of the film. Australian Cinema has an important distinction from Hollywood in that the presentation of what I will call 'awkwardness' is not problematic. As a film making nation we a quite able to view ourselves critically and humourously. This tendency has positively peaked with features like 'Welcome to Woop Woop' and 'The Castle'. Since we are seeing events essentially through Danny, the fringe dweller, we are placed outside of normal society with him. Duigan has imparted an amazing sense of detachment from the events of daily life through the eyes of Danny, and this achievement is where I find the film to be at its best. The expansive photography and almost excessively lonely soundtrack serve as metaphors to enhance the tensions and uncertainties of the adolescent characters and place the viewer in a sympathetic position.

One negative criticism I will level at the film is based on the subplot of Freya's prostitute mother. This subplot seems to be an attempt to spell out something about the character of Freya that it is really not necessary. Aside from this very minor irritation I consider 'The Year My Voice Broke' to be a pivotal Australian movie in many ways. It forged artistic and commercial ground for itself in an era of Australian film that on paper, seemed at best unaccomodating. I also want to suggest that it played a major part in the advancement of not only the Kennedy Miller production company, but of the careers of two of Australia's best actors, Ben Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor. Furthermore,aside from any other technical, political or theoretical considerations, it is an excellent viewing experience.

Critical Uptake of the film

The critical appraisals of 'The Year My Voice Broke' have generally been good, but seemed somewhat lacking in depth. By this I mean that the reviewers were adamant that the film was indeed a "sensitive rite-of-passage story", as Scott Murray described it in Cinema Papers in 1989, but seemed to stay away from discussing those elements of the narrative relating to the way in which the film represents the attitudes and relationships of country dwelling Australians, particularly since the city and country tensions and problems have always played such an important role in Australian film. It seems to me that this is a very important area of the film's appeal that has been overlooked, or even trivialised. I concede that the review information I managed to locate wasn't as comprehensive as I would have liked for the purposes of this critique, but the information I was able to read was remarkably uniform in its attitude towards the film.

'The Year My Voice Broke' won several Australian Film Institute awards in the year of its release and seems to have been fairly well received in this country. Interestingly though, the strongest written support I could find for the film was contained in the American reviews from the Chicago Reader and Washington Post archives. For example, Hal Hinson of the Washington Post claims that the film "...delivers something tougher, moodier and more challenging. The movie, with its seedy, small-town setting and its atmosphere of hidden-away secrets, almost has the feel of a gothic story...". He goes on to say "This isn't an adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy, so the impossible never happens, and it's a credit to the movie that it doesn't." However, the focus is still on the coming-of-age aspect of the film. I suspect that the idiosyncracies of Australian country living don't translate well for foreign viewers and this would explain the focus of comments made by international critics. Hinson seems to then get drawn in by the adolescent nostalgia and makes the claim that "Duigan's greatest strength is that he never condescends to his characters' emotions. He sees adolescence as a season of poetry in life, a time of excess when feelings run out of control. The raw New South Wales settings intensify this mood as well. "

Reviews weren't all good however, at the time of the film's home-video release, William Green had these somewhat ambiguous comments to make in Sight and Sound (v1,n44, August 1991).

"Risking boredom rather than failure, Australian writer-director John Duigan goes back to 1962 in this antipodean version of "The Last Picture Show". The film pleases mostly by the freshness of new faces."

Production Circumstances

I found that information pertaining to the production circumstances of 'The Year My Voice Broke' to be particularly difficult to find, in fact, I found nothing. This is somewhat disappointing since the obvious wealth of collaborations between critical crew members suggests some important working relationships, and it is a pity I could not investigate this further.

Relationship to other projects of the production crew

'The Year My Voice Broke' was produced by Kennedy Miller, arguably one of the most successful (and presumably lucrative, at least locally) Australian filmmaking outfits of the 1980s. The principal crew members have worked together extensively both prior to and since the release of this film. Many crew members worked on the Vietnam and Bangkok Hilton mini-series' for television and went on to work on such films as the highly acclaimed 'Babe". The filmographies I have included on the bibliographical information page illustrate that the professionals who worked on 'The Year My Voice Broke' have extensive and comprehensive careers and are very adaptable. There is barely a major Australian movie since 1980 that has not been influenced by one of the members of the cast assembled here. As I mentioned above, however, I would have liked more information about the production circumstances of the film as this would have undoubtedly proved very revealing in terms of the long standing collaborations between the principal crew members. The information I do have simply suggests that the team who worked on 'The Year My Voice Broke' work very well together.

The Year My Voice Broke and Australian Cinema

This film was released during the eighties, the era of the 10BA tax concessions and privatisation of the Australian film industry. It does sit heavily on the history of the Australian quality film of the late seventies - the nostalgia film, but owing to its avoidance of documentary style presentation, is very much an original and important film. The film seems to have suffered somewhat in that it was competing for box office success with the Hollywood orientated Australian cinema of the eighties. 'The Year My Voice Broke' is decidedly un-Hollywood in presentation, definitely a bold move by both Kennedy Miller and the director in such an industry climate. Not only was the film competing with the large budget 'Mad Max' films and the fallout from successes like 'Crocodile Dundee', but it was also competing with other national cinema products in the art cinema environment.

At the time, Duigan maintained a certain distance and skepticism about film criticism in Australia. In the January 88 edition of Cinema Papers he explains:

"I think one of the things the film industry suffers from is that it's fashionable among intellectual circles in Australia to be blindly uncritical of Australian films and generally lump them all together and write them off. I certainly think that there are very few writers who give the same kind of attention or diligence in their analysis of Australian films that they would give to films by people with esoteric sounding names from Germany or France".


This information has been compiled by David Thomas for H231, Australian Cinema at Murdoch University, Western Australia.

It is best viewed in 800 x 600 resolution.