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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

Disc Reviews

Jimmy Eats World in Schepisi’s Early “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” (1978) | Blu-ray Review

Jimmy Eats World in Schepisi’s Early “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” (1978) | Blu-ray Review

Fred Schepisi’s 1978 sophomore film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith holds a significant prominence in the Australian New Wave, which revitalized Australia’s film industry throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in that it was the first Australian film to compete in Cannes. A vibrant, eventually violent saga of an Indigenous man’s turn to bloody vengeance, Blacksmith’s saga is perhaps the most socially provocative figure outside of Ned Kelly (who’s mentioned in the film’s proceedings) to receive such cinematic reverence in Australian cinema. Schepisi, whose filmography runs a gamut of social issue topics, famed play adaptations, Hollywood rom-coms and even espionage thrillers, is perhaps best remembered for the 1988 Meryl Streep starrer A Cry in the Dark (which generated a rather infamous punchline about a dingo), but his recuperation of Jimmie Blacksmith arrives just in time for a resurgence of cinema dealing with Australia’s dark history.

In turn-of-the-century Australia, the half-caste Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is raised in Central South Wales to celebrate his white blood by the local minister (Jack Thompson) despite being initiated as a member of his own Indigenous tribe. Straddling two worlds, Jimmie’s education assists him in the opportunity to marry a white woman (Angela Punch McGregor) after she becomes pregnant. But the racism and oppression he experienced before their marriage becomes unbearable when he’s denied employment opportunities, leading his family to struggle for sustenance. Meanwhile, it seems the child may not be his based on the infant’s white complexion. Resentment leads to violence, and after murdering many of the men who demeaned him, Jimmie escapes into the bush with his brother. Eventually arrested, Jimmie is executed in 1901, the same year Australian democracy was born.

Like Justin Kurzel’s recent True History of the Kelly Gang, the style of Schepisi’s Jimmie Blacksmith also feels akin to the lesser known but similarly styled The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) in its careful deliberation of the particular social conditions which drive its protagonist to reprehensible violence and eventual madness. But the racial component of the slights suffered by the Indigenous population, oft examined by Rolf de Heer, would not receive a more garish and discomfiting portrayal as Schepisi hits here until Jennifer Kent’s searing The Nightingale (2018).

Featuring a moving and underrated performance from the underappreciated Tommy Lewis (who passed away in 2018 but was notably featured in John Hillcoat’s 2005 Western The Proposition), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith hits on a variety of troubling social injustices, including the miscegenation which marks him as a social pariah, and his own biological genocide, whereby Jack Thompson’s cold Methodist minister makes plans for Jimmie to breed the Indigenous blood out of his progeny. Angela Punch McGregor, as Blacksmith’s white wife, is a subtle, empathetic figure in a sea of barbaric whiteness whose actions orchestrate a swath of vengeful, blood-soaked violence approaching the macabre, indulgent heights of The Birth of a Nation (2016). Bruce Smeaton’s gripping score assists Ian Baker’s epically inclined cinematography (both who worked on several Schepisi projects) for a sobering glance at the tragic fate of an Indigenous folk hero who dared to challenge the social hierarchy.

Disc Review:

Kino Lorber presents this celebrated Schepisi title (Pauline Kael afforded the film a backhanded compliment in The New Yorker, hailing it as ‘the one great Australian film I’ve seen”) as a two-disc set in their Classic category, both the 117-minute International version and the slightly longer 122-minute Australian version. The transfer arrives in 2.35:1 with 2.0 mono, with Australian version including both audio commentary and an intro from Fred Schepisi.

Interview with writer/director:
Fred Schepisi and DP Ian Baker are on hand for this hour-long conversation filmed in 2007 recounting their experiences making The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

The Chant of Tom Lewis:
Actor Tommy Lewis is featured in this twenty-six-minute archival interview speaking on The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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