NOW IN THEATERS! Filmmaker Robert Connolly goes from The Dry to the wet with his environmental call-to-arms Blueback. Dealing primarily with the conservation of the oceans – an important and relevant subject, no doubt – the film’s approach verges on simplistic and didactic. However, its stunning cinematography and the committed performances from its cast save the entire enterprise from becoming a lesson in preserving ecology.
Marine biologist Abby (Mia Wasikowska) is on a ship, researching the death of reefs. She delivers bad news to her aquarium fish before receiving even worse news herself: her mother, Dora (Elizabeth Alexander), had a stroke. Abby ventures back to her childhood home by the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. “They say she might not speak again,” family friend Briggs (Clarence Ryan) informs Abby on the way. He means it. The mother stays silent. “You are so damn stubborn,” Abby snaps at her. She fixes the family boat and reminisces about her past.
Blueback continuously intercuts between the present and the past. Ariel Donoghue plays eight-year-old Abby. Young Dora (Radha Mitchell), an activist for ocean preservation, takes a reluctant Abby diving. She drops a ring into the water and makes her daughter fetch it. She teaches Abby about groupers. “I’ll call them blueback,” Abby decides. The child draws them, even befriends one, My Octopus Teacher–style.
“…Dora chains herself to construction trucks and aggressively challenges Abby to be more proactive.”
Donoghue grows into Ilsa Fog. Abby’s grouper friend still awaits her frequent visits. The young woman partakes in her mom’s protests against a construction company: Dora chains herself to trucks and aggressively challenges Abby to be more proactive. Before long, Abby comes face-to-face with the horrors of illegal fishing: speared endangered fish and heartless poachers. Lest we forget, there’s also Erica Bana’s Macka, a vivacious local diver who is sort of like a father figure to Abby.
The numerous plot threads feel underdeveloped, rarely escaping convention. There are frequent moments that drag. Connolly piles on his messages thickly. “I want to save the world’s oceans, mom,” Abby tells Dora forcefully at one point. In another moment that strains credulity, Abby actually pushes her grouper friend away from the poachers. The constant switching between the past and the present becomes frustrating, making one wish the filmmaker would delve deeper into what is essentially the heart of the film – the relationship between Abby and the titular grouper.
Thank heaven for Mitchell, who plays a perfect balance of motherly love and a deep passion for her life’s work, perhaps spurred by the loss of her husband. Dora is stubborn and resilient but also unaware of the long-term damage she’s inflicting on her daughter (again, another aspect that could have been explored in more depth). Bana – the lead in Connolly’s aforementioned thriller The Dry – matches her vibrancy, managing to cast a lasting impression in what amounts to barely more than a cameo. The actor once again reminds us of his range. On the other hand, Wasikowska seems a bit lost, blankly gazing into the distance, disconnected from the rest of the narrative.
Andrew Commis and Rick Rifici’s jaw-dropping camerawork is worth the ticket price by itself: Abby’s fingers brushing against the grouper, whales scaling the surface of a deep-blue ocean, the skeleton of a blue whale resting among rocks. These visuals make the abundant preaching throughout Blueback palatable but make you long for a tighter focus and a subtler approach.