The beautiful and lyrical “Blueback” is a riveting mother-daughter (and fish) drama and a beautifully filmed memory piece that will reward patient viewers who are able to settle in and enjoy the film’s low-key atmosphere.
Directed and written by Robert Connolly and based on Tim Winton’s 1998 novel (here he gets an additional writing by credit), there’s something comfortably old-fashioned, yet vitally feminine, about this moving ecological tale.
The action begins when dedicated marine biologist Abby Jackson (Mia Wasikowska) is called back to her childhood home on Australia’s west coast after her mother, Dora (Liz Alexander), suffers a life-changing stroke. (Southwest Australia’s dazzling Bremer Bay served as the story’s fictional Longboat Bay.)
Abby’s return to her idyllic hometown brings back memories of her childhood and early fascination with the ocean and its surroundings. We first travel back to Abby when she was 8 years old (played by Ariel Donoghue) when her love of the water was kick-started by an underwater encounter with a western blue groper, a giant reef-dwelling fish that can live to be 70 years old. The encounter began her unusual friendship with this striking, soulful creature, whom she affectionately named Blueback because of its cobalt color.
The film continues to alternate between past and present as adult Abby patiently tries to refresh her ailing mother’s stalled speech and empty memory with stories, paintings, and other remnants of their shared past.
Most of the flashbacks center on Abby at age 15 (played well by Ilsa Fogg) and her close but occasionally combative relationship with the then-fiery Dora (an excellent Radha Mitchell), an environmentalist fighting for the conservation of the ocean and endangered species. Of particular concern to Dora, and by extension Abby, is a luxury housing project proposed by a local developer (Erik Thomson) that threatens not only their seaside home, but also the bay and its prized natural resources.
Mother and daughter have been a duo for a long time since Dora’s husband – Abby’s father – disappeared centuries ago, believed to be the victim of a pearl diving accident. But while Dora has a no-holds-barred approach to her commitment to the environment (she’s especially vigilant about local overfishing), Abby, while passionate about the land and the sea, could be a little more careful. This angers Dora at times, but since they might be two sides of the same coin, they always find their way back to each other – even when it comes to Abby’s plans for a future away from Dora’s beloved Longboat Bay.
But it’s the underwater scenes, which mainly follow the ocean dives of the younger Abby and Dora, that give the film its special strength. Cinematographer Andrew Commis and his camera team movingly capture life under Australian waters (shot in the country’s northwestern Ningaloo Reef) in all its colorful, exotic grandeur. As for Blueback, as authentic as the big fish looks, it’s actually a state-of-the-art animatronic puppet enhanced with even more visual effects.
There is also an exciting, late arrival of a pod of humpback whales. This is definitely a movie for nature lovers.
Eric Bana, who starred in Connolly’s well-received 2020 crime drama ‘The Dry’, makes a welcome, if brief, appearance as a likeable unruly local fisherman. The skilled cast also features Pedrea Jackson as the teen Abby’s friend and romantic interest, Briggs, as well as Clarence Ryan as the adult Briggs.
“Blueback” is perhaps a little too wistful, easy-paced and serious for the kid audience it seemingly hopes to attract. This isn’t to say it’s not a worthy family movie – it is – and a worthy movie about family, too. It is also a vivid reminder of the urgent need to protect our increasingly fragile ecosystem at all costs.
An inspiring string-focused score by Nigel Westlake plus a beautiful cover version of the 1980s Crowded House hit ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ are bonuses.
rated: PG, for some thematic elements, danger and short mild language
Duration: 1 hour and 42 minutes
To play: Begins March 3rd in general release