Film Review: Erskineville Kings.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Erskineville Kings.

David Stratton, from SBS’s The Movie Show, described Erskineville Kings as “one of the most strikingly photographed Australian films in a long time”. This gritty urban drama, shot in locations around Sydney by cinematographer John Swaffield, premiered at the Noosa film festival in 1999. Low budget and non-government funded, the film delivers strong ensemble performances and a character-driven story by first-time screenplay writer Anik Chooney (aka Marty Denniss), who wrote and acted opposite Hugh Jackman in their first film roles.

Erskineville Kings is based on Denniss’ play Lime Green Jelly, which he adapted to screen and then adapted back to the stage as The Duck Shooter. He has written for television and stage, including Water Rats (1996), Home and Away (1988) and Lion Pig Lion (2007).

Erskineville Kings was director Alan White's feature debut. Previously, he directed commercials and music videos, and was the first director to win an Emmy for “Outstanding TV Commercial”. Erskineville Kings saw him transition to feature films, including Risk (2001) starring Jason Clarke, Bryan Brown, and Claudia Karvan; Reclaim (2014) starring John Cusack, Ryan Phillippe, Jacki Weaver and Rachelle Lefevre; and Broken (2006) starring Jeremy Sisto and Heather Graham. 
Erskineville Kings begins when 25-year-old lost soul Barky (Marty Denniss) returns to Sydney, after a two-year absence living in sugar cane areas of North Queensland, to attend his abusive father’s funeral. Barky reunites with friends and estranged brother Wace (Hugh Jackman) who had been left with the responsibility and resentment of being the one left behind.

The film looks at contemporary Australian identity and explores the traditions of mateship and masculinity.

Image from film Erskineville Kings, directed by Alan White, produced by Alan White & Julio Caro, streamed on Kanopy database.


Barky (Marty Denniss), a sallow 25 year old who seems to exist under a permanent shroud of gloom, arrives in Sydney as the sun rises, slumping through deserted and ambiently hostile train stations, beaten down streets and desolate corridors as he searches for his estranged brother Wace (Hugh Jackman). Tomorrow is the day of their father’s funeral, and after having vanished from his hometown, his friends and his family for over two years, Barky has come home. A home where the devils of the past still hold sway.

One of the greatest achievements of film is its ability to act as a kind of time capsule. As decades pass, a movie remains fixed in time.  It can show us what our aspirations and fears were, how people spoke to one another, what our clothes, buildings and vehicles looked like. Erskineville Kings feels like a love letter to a version of Australia that you can maybe still just see as modern facades of behaviour and design wash it away. It’s an Australia where masculine virtues of repression and dismissal are still barely holding reign, as they start to fray and crumble like every single location in the film, none more than the titular decaying King’s Hotel, where the majority of our drama plays out.

Hashing out deep seated issues over far too many beers has been a tradition not only in Australian life, but also our movies. Don’s Party, Wake In Fright and The Boys have all explored the idea of revelation through alcohol, and this sits nicely alongside them at the bar. Denniss (who also wrote the film) and Jackman’s emotionally wrenching verbal sparring, slowly becoming the diamond sharp core of what starts as a freewheeling mood piece, is like being shocked with a splash of icy water.

Jackman’s coiled physicality, which would become one of the cornerstones of the X-Men franchise series, is used here to different ends than it would be in his wildly successful portrayal of the unstoppable Wolverine. Here he is a young man rendered almost static by the glaringly obvious rage he carries. Someone so consumed by grief and bitterness that it seems he is barely able to interact with others, for fear of some terrible consequence being released from within. His character Wace remains offscreen for more than the first third of the story, constantly referred to and slightly mythologised by Barky’s friends as they search him out and slowly circle around his inevitable reveal, around the consequences of Barky’s perceived abandonment. Even after we meet him, reaching any emotional core to the Wace proves just as labyrinthine as physically tracking him down. Barky vanished from a world that held nothing for him, while Wace stayed, disappearing inwards instead. It’s when the gates of repression break that the film begins to soar.

Leah Vandenberg, given the traditionally thankless role of 'The Girl Left Behind', is at least given enough well-written dialogue and screen time that she actually feels a part of the whole, and not just the kind of adjunct that most of the film’s characters would see her as.

A harshly beautiful, truthfully composed examination of Australian culture, this is a movie that remains under-seen, and one that not only retains the impact it had 20 years after its release but has deepened with the passage of time.

Further reading

  • Australian Cinema in the 1990's. Barber, Susan. 2002. Film Quarterly; 56(2), pp.52-54. (article)
  • Struggle in Oz cinema. Groves, Don. 2004. Variety; 394(12), pp.A1, A4. (article)
  • For a Few Dollars More: Masculinity and Moral Rectitude in Robert Connolly's 'Three Dollars'. Capp, Rose. 2005. Metro Magazine; 144, pp.10-13 (article)
  • Always the larrikin: Ben Mendelsohn and young Aussie manhood in Australian cinema. Gottschall, Kristina. 2014. Continuum: 'Materialities', 28(6), pp.862-875. (article)
  • Produced Locally, Designed Globally: Cosmopolitanism in Contemporary Cinema. Khorana, Sukhmani. 2011. Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, 168, pp.74-78. (article)
  • Directory of World Cinema : Australia & New Zealand / Goldsmith, B, & Lealand, G (eds), Intellect, Bristol. 2010 (ebook)

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Great reminder of this lost classic.