Written by David Morgan-Brown
“The screenplay here is one of a few examples of what makes (or what should make) David Williamson a key figure of Australian cinema.”
The Australian New Wave began with a number of films written by playwright David Williamson who adapted some of his own plays into scripts for numerous directors in the ‘70s, with Stork, Don’s Party, The Club, and this little, yet impressive feature debut from director Tom Jeffrey and producer Margaret Fink.
The Removalists starts off with a distinctly British feeling, identical to that of a quirky ‘70s TV comedy of that country, with the beginning of a policing day acted and edited in tune to the music, along with the opening credits playing over the film’s title being ‘removed’ letter by letter. What follows are what appears to be two very long sequences. The first involves Sergeant Dan Simmonds (Peter Cummins), an experienced police-officer in charge of training newcomer Constable Neville Ross (John Hargreaves) on his first day, and they are visited by Marilyn (Jacki Weaver) and her sister Kate (Kate Fitzgerald) who claim Marilyn’s husband has been beating her. The second, and even lengthier, sequence involves the police-officers doing their duty and paying the husband, Kenny (Martin Harris), a visit and are quick to apprehend the hot-headed abusive man whilst a hired removalist Rob (Chris Haywood) begins taking away all of Marilyn’s (and Kenny’s) possessions – but what follows from here is a constantly shifting power dynamic between all of these characters as they trade abuses (mostly verbal, but some physical), argue over morality, and try animalistically to bargain with each other.
The screenplay here is one of a few examples of what makes (or what should make) David Williamson a key figure of Australian cinema, with this film aimed closer to a theatre audience than a cinema one as it is much more concerned with the unveiling of its characters rather than its story. Perceptions of characters shift at various times, including where our sympathies should lie. Many similar films that aim for realism keep the characters too tidy as good characters remain good and bad characters remain bad, making the audience’s reactions to them constant and unchanging.
In this film, the cocky loudmouth wife-beater character is restrained to his own home via handcuffs and stays that way throughout most of his screen-time to stop him from interfering with the cops and the removalist under his wife’s request – but it wouldn’t be enough for the film to evoke easy vengeful catharsis, it then uses this set-up to question the malleable morals of his wife, the removalist, and especially the cops as they take excessive advantage of this repulsive man by stealing his possessions and even physically abusing him, which puts the audiences’ sympathies (or at least empathies) to the test.
The Removalists, as a play, was first presented in 1971 and it took only four years for it to make it to the big screen. It was decided that this adaptation should remain faithful to the play by sticking to long lengthy scenes within the very few interior settings. Associate producer Richard Brennan spoke of the tricky decision of how to adapt the play: “if you take it to exteriors you are dissipating its original force and concentration and if you leave it inside it’s too claustrophobic and like a TV drama”. The decision to mostly avoid exteriors paid off as the film works with its claustrophobia, as the lengthiness of these scenes allows the drama to unfold at a natural organic pace, all the while building up the domestic tension.
Unfortunately, some critics didn’t seem to pick up on this and complained about the theatrical nature of the film. Folks like Colin Bennett of The Age and Barbara Richards of Sun-Herald attacked its staginess and the fact it was mostly confined to long scenes in interior settings, but that hardly makes it any different than any kind of single-set bottle film like My Dinner With Andre or Secret Honor, or similarly dramedic TV-films that you’d see from the likes of British directors like Mike Leigh (eg Abigail’s Party). It’s poor criticism to call a film too restrictively tied to its stage original, as it seems to be judging a film adaptation of a play rather just a film. The eventual limited release of The Removalists was met with disappointing box office results. Not many people saw it, resulting in it missing out on a wide release (let alone an international one), despite a few enthusiastic reviews from down under and has since been a relatively forgotten Australian film in need of more recognition.
According to Pointblank Pictures, the film developed notoriety as a lost film as it’d only been passed around on dodgy, bad quality bootleg VHS tapes and its negatives have never been found, meaning its VHS-sourced DVD transfer is less than desirable. Because of the legendary status the film seemed to accumulate, a remake was to be reimagined by Craig Monaghan in 2012, who would direct it and co-write with David Williamson, and would feature the Neville Ross character as a veteran officer and an Australian-Lebanese newbie named Amad Houli who was having his first day, but this never materialised.
On its own merits, The Removalists is a really wonderfully crafted film, moreso in its morally intriguing set-up and its richly multi-faceted characters than its production value, though the film’s long sequences have been shot and edited in the best and most efficient way to convey this story and its characters. The small cast all do a great job at nailing the usual misanthropic touch Williamson ascribes to many of his characters, and all the talents involved in this little film made it as special as it could be – it is in dire need of a reappraisal (especially for Mike Leigh fans).