I am writing this in Old South Wales, in the visitor suite of my mother’s assisted living facility. When I flew out of Sydney, just before Christmas, I knew I was taking a punt leaving a country which had then lost more people to cassowary attack than Omicron, to visit a country already vying for the title of world’s highest infection rate. But my mother is 88 and has galloping dementia and a broken hip, and as the western world reached, via muscle memory, for the pandemic panic button I knew that if I left it much longer the international travel window – which rarely seems better than ajar these days – might well slam shut again – and for how long this time?
Since I’ve been here, Boris Johnson’s bewilderingly unpredictable turnaround on UK travel regulations has hogged the local media’s Covid bandwidth, and at time of writing I do not know if the NSW state government is planning to suspend the right of repatriation to citizens returning from countries with high infection levels, or whether I will merely be whisked off to hotel quarantine when I deplane. It feels depressingly like how it felt the last time I made this trip, in March 2020, except that back then at least Gladys picked up the pub tab.
As is so often the case, the di-Oz-pora has sport to thank for what interest foreign media does take in Australian affairs, and while the impact of the new variant on Ashes venue selection engaged only the attention of other cricket-loving nations, the controversy surrounding No-vax Djokovic has been truly global. I do not know as I write this – as you will know reading it – if the Serb’s lawyers managed to overturn the Federal government’s decision to deny him the opportunity to defend his title. But if they didn’t, and he was forced to watch the opening matches of the competition on his smartphone in what has been described in certain British tabloids as a Covid concentration camp – it would not have come as a surprise to anybody, anywhere, so comprehensive has been the international coverage of Australia’s most draconian Covid containment policies. Whatever anyone says about Dan Andrews, his legacy will never be in doubt. In recent history, only Martin Bryant has done more to bring an Australian state to the world’s attention.
Nitram, Justin Kurzel’s dramatisation of Bryant’s life in the days preceding the Port Arthur massacre, was the last film I watched before flying out of Sydney, and part of me wishes I hadn’t. Not because it isn’t a good film – I thought it one of the most compelling pieces of Australian cinema I’ve ever seen. But because I cannot see any good coming from it. The director’s decision not to show (and you would need to be a lot younger than the average Speccie reader to need a spoiler alert here) any of the actual shootings does not diminish the horror – indeed the absence of gunshots and gore gives it a chilling, documentary veracity; most people in the vicinity of the shootings would not have actually seen them, either. I was also impressed that Kurzel and his scriptwriter Shaun Grant resisted the temptation to inject the kind of psychological tipping point that is now a convention of so many mass-murder re-enactments: no single event pushes Bryant over the edge. From the opening credits, we feel the hopelessness and banality of every aspect of his life have led inextricably towards this point. Which is kind of my point. A series of closing credits, which reveal that the benefits of John Howard’s changes to Australian gun laws have now all but disappeared, might shock Australian viewers, but I bet the abiding effect of the film on overseas audiences will simply be to deter them from ever setting foot in Tasmania. And in this sense, Nitram operates in the same familiar space as the greatly inferior BBC/HBO co-pro The Tourist, which goes out of its way to make the idea of travelling through the South Australian outback a very bad idea – and not because you might die of thirst or snake bite, but because everyone you meet there will be utterly and irredeemably awful. Two very different roads, then, leading to the same depressing destination. But on balance I’d still rather be lost in Tasmania or South Australia than marooned in Old South Wales.
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