John Marsden’s best-selling Australian book series has sold two to three million copies worldwide. It is staple reading for most Australians born in the 80s who devoured it on their own volition or were forced to as part of their school curriculum. These novels are not the stuff of Pulitzers, but are intense, thrilling and intelligent enough to explore the moral ambiguities of violence and war while maintaining the interest of the most stalwart non-reader.
In terms of the story itself, Stuart Beattie faithfully adapts Tomorrow When the War Began (the first book in the seven part series). He has cast an attractive group of soap actors to play the group of teenagers who return from a camping trip only to discover that their country has been invaded by a foreign nation. Led by Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey, Neighbours) and her best friend Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), they form their own militia to sabotage the invaders in an effort to save their captive families.
To Beattie’s credit, he explores the predicament of these characters with some level of complexity, avoiding the material’s potential xenophobia. Ellie acknowledges the moral uncertainty of war after killing a soldier by stating that at the end of the day she valued her life more than that of the person trying to kill her. A later sequence sees the camera pause on a painted mural of English settlers arriving in Australia, referencing that earlier “invasion” took place in this country.
Beattie is clearly interested in addressing criticism leveled at the Australian film industry regarding its focus on art house films that no-one wants to watch. Independently financed with a reported budget of $20 million, Tomorrow When the War Began wants to be the Australian blockbuster that Australia was supposed to be (which coincidentally was also written by Beattie).
But while it may satisfy the tween demographic, it will not hold the interest of the 20 to 30-year-olds who will be most curious to see it. Beattie is a commercially successful screenwriter in Hollywood (Collateral, Pirates of the Caribbean), but his lack of experience as a director is telling. Action sequences lack pace and energy and the whole film has the blocky visual style of something made for television.
What made Marsden’s novels so popular was the action and suspense but also the emotional beats of careful character development. Beattie does not hold back in showing some of the novel’s violence, but steadfastly refuses to dwell on moments of darkness. The film wants to be slick entertainment and is for the most part so relentlessly paced that emotional engagement is near impossible. This is definitely not a boring film. It just could have been a lot better.
Tomorrow When The War Began is released in Australia on 2nd September
Director: Stuart Beattie
Cast: Ellie Linton, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis, Deniz Akdeniz, Phoebe Tonkin, Chris Pang, Ashleigh Cummings, Andrew Ryan