Most sports fans have at least a vague recollection of Australian Rules football, thanks in part to ESPN. Back in the days when the now mega-powerful, ABC/Disney-owned sports behemoth was just an embryonic pioneering cable network out of Connecticut, ESPN broadcast a steady diet of Australian Rules football to fill up the wee hours of the morning with programming. Hey, at least it beat their lumberjack competitions.
To make the case that our Aussie friends are perhaps a bit more rugged around the edges than we Americans, one needn’t look any further than Australian Rules football. The game is an odd hybrid of soccer, rugby, American football, and even a dash of basketball; a true tough-guy sport that mostly resembles a slightly better organized version of a neighborhood game we used to call “Murder the Bum.”
The sport at the local club level serves as the backdrop for director Paul Goldman’s bleak and frustrating drama “Australian Rules.” Prospect Bay hasn’t won a championship in over thirty years. But now the backwater coastal town’s team has a date in the finals, thanks in no small part to a talented contingent of Aboriginal players from a nearby mission. Football’s important, it’s true. But not nearly enough so to overcome the seething, barely repressed racial tension that simmers between the black players and the white townies, the same tension that constantly threatens to rip apart segregated teammates.
Only Blacky (Nathan Phillips), too good-natured to really excel at the cutthroat game, reaches out across the racial divide, both to his best friend Dumby (Simon Westaway), the team’s Aboriginal star, and to Clarence (Lisa Flanagan), an attractive black woman on whom Blacky has a crush.
None of this endears Blacky to either side of the divide; the white townspeople and especially his abusive father muttering about the company Blacky keeps on the one hand, while Dumby’s and Clarence’s crowd glowers at the outsider in their midst on the other. As Blacky and Dumby soon realize, winning the championship trophy is the easy part. Building a bridge between two mutually hostile peoples and overcoming their racial hatred and prejudice is something else again.
“Australian Rules,” as should be obvious, transcends the game that serves as its background. Goldman lays out his harsh world in unblinking detail here, complete with its sour undercurrent of hatred and mistrust. Unfortunately, he does a much better job showing us the cancer that’s festering beneath Prospect Bay’s rugged skin than he does giving his characters a way to solve the problem. Now granted, one can’t go around waving magic movie wands to blithely solve centuries old problems like racism in a single film. But Blacky doesn’t even try. As “Australian Rules” becomes ever more tragic, the viewer spends the entire film internally screaming at the stoically suffering hero to do something. Take a stand. Speak out, if not to his entire community, then at least to his jackass father.
Alas, it’s not to be. The biggest disappointment of an otherwise well-made and poignant film, is that Blacky all-too-easily heeds the advice in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: he simply runs away.