Retro Review: 27A

“Like with a few Australian films before it and quite a few more after it, 27A has the conviction to portray the roughness and the hopelessness of its scenario – this is a key identifiable aspect of this country’s films of this era.”


Written by
David Morgan-Brown

The sounds of mental asylum chit-chat is heard over a black screen, the barely intelligible crass-sounding vernacular tinged with a slurred Australian accent. This is how 27A begins and ends, an early film of the Australian New Wave situated within a psychiatric hospital, unflinchingly portraying the demeaning living conditions that are brought upon even those who are unjustly encaged there. Released in 1974, 27A was one of the very first serious drama films of this Australian film era in the early 70s, and its power hasn’t diminished over time.

After the black intro of mindless chatter, 27A then presents this pre-credits title-card: “Under Section 27A of the Queensland Mental Health Act a prisoner may be transferred from a Prison to a Mental Institution and held there beyond the original sentence, indefinitely.”

Although the troubling matter of section 27A had been abandoned by the time of the film’s release, 27A remains a captivating portrayal of the inner workings of a psychiatric hospital, presented in a rough docu-drama manner. There may be sparse doses of hopeful humanity within the hospital, but this film mostly focuses on presenting the troubling tension between patient and orderly who exacerbate each other’s issues.

We are introduced to the hospital through the eyes of Bill (Robert McDarra, the prolific radio-play actor), an alcoholic who has been detained through section 27A. In the film’s opening credits, his life-story is clinically revised by an off-screen doctor, quickly filling in the details of his experiences with war-time, work, and booze.

Bill is made accustomed to the harsh mistreatments of the orderlies such as Cornish (Bill Hunter, in his first major film role), the boredom of the afternoon meanderings in the hospital’s grassy court, and the assortment of other patients ranging from war-time oldies and frazzled counterculture youths (along with the immigrants and Aboriginals, they represent the varied Australia population, then and now). 

Bill’s initial frustration at his situation soon gives way to acceptance, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to escape. Along with other patients, he makes a few daring run-aways back to the city, only to be recaptured, though the film avoids repetition by having each escape spurred on by a different reason. 

Bill has little hope of not only getting himself out, but finding an emotional salvation. His treatment by the orderlies hardly improves (especially once they start resorting to sedatives), his daughter is somewhat estranged and not wholly concerned about his detainment, and he makes no special bond with any of the patients (this ain’t no One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The only hope in his situation seems to come from the hospital’s head, who first views Bill as clinically as any other case study, though an unexpected warmth and generosity later arises in this character.

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When not set in the hospital, 27A also takes a little delve into the bureaucratic going-ons that run the ward from afar in the city, where one of its own young employees suffers his own mental break-down, established in a very free-spirited scene of punk-ish abandon. 

Although the cinematography of the 16mm may look cheap and outdated now, its colour palette is very much appropriate for this story, with the film’s prominence of early-morning yellows and oranges giving this cold story the warmth it needs, as opposed to if it had been filmed on digital which likely would’ve favoured cold blue colours. 

One of only 20 Australian films released in 1974, this early entry of the Australian New Wave shows just how much this movement at times was inspired by the parallel New Hollywood Movement emerging in America. 27A’s carefree pacing, yet purposeful content is reminiscent of the low-budget post-Easy Rider American films that so wholly saluted a new form of cinematic liberation as evidenced through their breezy preoccupation with characters over story, like the films of Monte Hellman such as Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Jerry Schatzberg such as Scarecrow (1973) and Paul Morrissey such as Trash (1970).

27A’s production company’s website states director Esben Storm knew the film’s budget would be low, so he emulated similarly low-budgeted docu-drama films about social injustice, citing the films of British filmmakers Paul Watkins and Ken Loach as influences – of Loach’s films, he specifically references Cathy Come Home (1966) and Poor Cow (1967), though 27A bears a resemblance to Loach’s later film Family Life (1971), a similar tale of a person instituted against their will. 

Storm’s oeuvre was filled with underdog tales like these, which fellow actor Richard Moir and Michael Norton claim in Storm’s obituary was “no doubt an echo of his father’s plight as a displaced farmer”, where lawyers forced the Storm family’s displacement in Denmark and lead to them moving to Australia.

Storm was just 24 when the film was released, and producer Haydn Keenan only 23, and it was the first feature made under their Smart Street Films production company, after they experimented with shorts throughout their teen years. 27A won the AFI Award for Best Film, along with Best Actor for McNarra (who unfortunately died just a year later, due to his own alcoholism), but it didn’t do so well commercially, as opposed to the more bawdy and more successful films at this early stage in the Australian New Wave like Alvin Purple (1972) and Libido (1973). 

It did bode well with local critics, who identified it as a true drama in the burgeoning Australian scene amongst the sex romps. Colin Bennet glowingly praised the film, stating it’s “possibly the feature of most substance to emerge since the revival of our industry” and “shows a concern for humanity and for justice which makes it almost unique among our screen Bazzas and Alvins, bikies and sex-ploiters.” David Stratton called it “one of the pioneering Australian feature films”, claiming “it was a foolhardy, brave attempt to make a serious film” and that “its sincerity and courage shine through the restrictions of its tiny budget and the inexperience of its makers.”

Despite the inexperience and youth of its director and producer, 27A emerges as a mature film on a serious subject, one with very few needless or expendable moments (though a comedic sped-up scene of Cornish showing off his new car is admittedly out of place). Like with a few Australian films before it (Wake in Fright) and quite a few more after it (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Stir, Ghosts … of the Civil Dead), 27A has the conviction to portray the roughness and the hopelessness of its scenario – this is a key identifiable aspect of this country’s films of this era.

You can watch 27A at OzFlix here.

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