The Australian publishing industry, despite attacks from the government, has seen several unusually large success stories over the last decade. The only question one can really ask about the adaptation of 2009’s Jasper Jones into a feature film is “what took so long?” With a higher than average chance of local box office success, Jasper Jones has arrived, and it’s potentially the best Australian fiction conversion in years.
Western Australia, 1969. Bookish boy Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller, Red Dog, True Blue) is woken in the night by local “bad boy” Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath, TV’s Doctor Doctor) and shown the hanging body of Laura Wishart. The town of Corrigan searches in vain for Laura as Charlie keeps her secret, helps Laura’s sister Eliza (Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys) come to terms with her loss, and tries to mediate between his increasingly distant parents (Toni Collette, xXx: Return of Xander Cage; and Dan Wyllie, No Activity).
Jasper Jones, with its sixties setting and themes of dual prejudice (a mixed-race Aboriginal deuteragonist and a Vietnamese immigrant family as the Vietnam War carries on) and coming of age, is often referred to as Australia’s To Kill A Mockingbird. There’s some truth to that — though Charlie never dresses as an armless ham — but Jasper Jones is definitely its own film. There’s barely the chance for Charlie’s innocence to be wounded, because by the time of the story’s inception he’s already painfully aware of the injustice inherent in the world.
The script, adapted by Shaun Grant (Deadline Gallipoli) and author Craig Silvey is fairly faithful to the novel without trying to convert its interiority wholesale with excessive use of voiceover. Miller’s Charlie is our eyes, but he is not the film’s voice. Miller plays the role with a wide-eyed awkwardness that contrasts well with the events that he can only begin to comprehend. McGrath has a depth of sensitivity that should see him go far. Weaving receives one of the film’s strongest scenes, and Collette plays her pared-back role with a subtlety that lends a separate interpretation to the material.
Director Rachel Perkins (Redfern Now) takes full advantage of Western Australia’s scenery to create a haunted sense of mystery, shooting the country in a way that doesn’t make it look depressingly low-rise. This is taut filmmaking that doesn’t do much to hide the fact that there’s less mystery to Jasper Jones than Charlie and his friends would like to believe; barely concealed prejudicial subtext is most of what we need.
We’re likely to see more Australian novels optioned into films in the coming years, at least the ones not turned into HBO series, and Jasper Jones is a strong vanguard. Well scripted, shot, and acted, there’s very little not to recommend it: it streamlines a story without sacrificing complexity, and it is both entertaining and thoughtful while it’s at it. It’s enough to give you faith in the industry.
Jasper Jones opened in Australian cinemas on March 2, 2017.
Directed by: Rachel Perkins.
Starring: Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice, Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving.