Is Blueback the best Tim Winton adaptation yet?

Hailing from Western Australia himself, our critic Travis Johnson has some strong opinions on the poet laureate of the WA coast.

Western Australian author Tim Winton has a big cultural footprint. The ocean-loving chronicler of maturing masculinity is literally a Living National Treasure, having been declared one by the National Trust of Australia. Perhaps they simply wanted the honour him with something more impressive than four Miles Frankin Awards (for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1992), Dirt Music (2002) and Breath (2009)). He’s a literary giant, to the point where you could be forgiven for thinking he’s the only writer to come out of Western Australia.

As a Western Australian writer who got sick up to the back teeth with Winton while attending his alma mater (the lecturers at Curtin University of New Technology simply would not shut up about him) I can say that tendency does stick in the craw a bit but must be balanced with the acknowledgement that Winton really is that talented, and if anyone deserves that level of recognition and success, it’s him. He excels at documenting life on the WA coast with clarity and sensitivity, and brings the same approach to his characters, mostly young men coming of age in that milieu.

The protagonist of his 1997 novella Blueback is Abel, one of Winton’s young fellas navigating the path to adulthood and the secrets of the Southern Ocean. In Robert Connolly’s excellent film adaptation, Abel has become Abby, played at various ages by Ariel Donoghue (childhood), Ilsa Fogg (adolescence), and Mia Wasikowska (adulthood), who grows to love the ocean under the careful tutelage of her environmentalist mother, Dora (Radha Mitchell, with Liz Alexander playing the elderly eco-warrior).

Adult Abby, now a marine biologist, returns to her hometown of Longboat Bay upon learning that her mother has had a stroke. Land developers, long held at bay by the pugnacious Dora, are circling. From there we bounce back and forth in time to follow Dora’s defence of the region’s marine ecosystem, Abby’s explorations of the same, and their relationship with the giant blue groper whose nickname gives us the film’s title, realised with remarkable verisimilitude as a puppet by the Creature Technology Co.

Winton might be, by my count at least, the Australian author with the most screen adaptations to his name, with six feature films and two TV series so far, and at least one more, The Riders theoretically still in development (news has been scarce since it was announced in 2018).

On the whole, the success rate has been remarkable; the only genuine dud has been Gregor Jordan’s 2019 misfire Dirt Music, which traded Winton’s cultural and geographical specificity for a pair of overseas imports, Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund, in the lead roles. Early efforts That Eye, the Sky (1994) by John Ruane, and In the Winter Dark (1998) by James Bogle have dropped off the cultural radar and seem to be largely unavailable now, but both were solid efforts (although you may have to trust me on that). Of the rest, Simon Baker’s feature directing debut, Breath (2017) and Robert Connolly’s ambitious anthology The Turning (2013) are excellent. The latter saw Connolly marshalling a who’s who of Australian filmmakers to tackle Winton’s 2004 short story collection, bringing a plurality of interpretations to the text.

Connolly’s take on Blueback is never so experimental, but he grasps what’s up for grabs (gender and structure, for the most part) and what is inviolable: a sense of place and character, and a deep respect and love of the former in particular.

Blueback’s particular triumph of specificity is the way it treats its water sequences both above and below the surface, with Bremer Bay in Western Australia standing in for the fictional town and its environs, while Ningaloo Reef, considerably further up the coast, providing underwater locations.

That might be a cheat, technically, but Connolly perfectly captures the feel of diving—an important consideration in a film with so many characters, including Eric Bana’s larrikin local abalone fisherman and a nameless goon squad of spearfishermen employed by Erik Thomson’s somewhat cartoonish developer, splashing in and out of the water. Underwater cinematography by Rick Rifici beautifully brings the reef to life, capturing the wonder of ocean exploration, and the incredible biodiversity of a thriving reef system.

On the page and in the broad strokes Blueback is a fairly simple environmental parable, and deliberately so, but it’s this specificity and attention to detail that sells it. Tim Winton’s primary narrative gift is to put you right there, in this place with these people. Robert Connolly’s Blueback manages the same rather difficult trick, making the film, if not the finest adaptation of the sun-bleached author’s work, certainly in the upper echelon.