Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Father Knows Jest

By Ray Pride

MAY 17, 1999:  Australian movies have a tradition of both battlers and buffoons, the little guy against the big ones, mate.

"The Castle" is a sweet sliver of a movie that became big in more ways than one. Acquired by Miramax at the 1998 Sundance Festival for a reported $6 million, and up against the reissue of "Star Wars," it still managed to become Australia's biggest hit in the year it was released.

The government is about to evict the insanely happy Kerrigan clan of 3 High View Crescent, Cooloroo, to expand the runways of the airport whose flight paths they live under. Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton, photo) is an indelible comic creation, a tow-truck driver who goes all the way to the Supreme Court of Australia battling to save his ricky-tick home from demolition. They even live over a bit of toxic waste and beside towering high-voltage pylons, but it's their home, a man's castle filled with his family's memories. Caton's Kerrigan is a classic character, more optimistic and idealistic than any of Frank Capra's characters, heading his hemisphere's tackiest family but beaming with undying love and life-giving affection.

"The Castle" was a hiccup of a production, a 16mm, no-frills, two-takes-per-shot project, taking eleven days to shoot. Successful low-budget Australian television producers Working Dog Ltd., a writing-producing quintet, divided up the duties so that while one (Rod Sitch) became director, another did casting and another operated camera. (The family was named "Kerrigan" because they could get a tow-truck with that moniker on it.) The result was a homegrown hit that beat out the reissue of "Star Wars" in that country; of its opening alongside "Phantom Menace," the warmly affable Caton jokes, "That George Lucas is following us around! Lucas is just running scared!"

The veteran actor welcomed both the role and the compact shoot. "It came at a period in my career when I couldn't get arrested!" he says, laughing. "I was so well-known on Australian television, people thought I was all used up. It was a terrific opportunity. On an eleven-day shoot, you can keep your energy up, and since I'm in almost every scene, that's important. It was a sprint, you had to keep disciplined. I found it really energizing, actually. I was jumping up and down every day! They were waiting for me to fall over." But more importantly, his Darryl is the center of the family, and of the film. "I've never ever been a leading man, y'know. My youth came and went, and I got character roles and funny roles, but I never played a character that fell in love or had a girlfriend. I was the offbeat character—get in, upstage everyone, get out. For the first time in my life, I had the chance to shape a whole performance on film. The end result of that, after it's a huge hit in Australia, I know when I'm dead and gone something of me will live on, y'know. And it's not about money, it's about self-validation. You finally get a chance to say, 'That's right. That's mine.' I can't thank Working Dog enough for that chance. It's changed my life, big time."

There are elements that one might take as condescension or a patronizing air toward its characters, a la the worst of "The Brady Bunch," such as two of the Kerrigan sons' hacked-off bowl haircuts. In an American film, a level of banality shown in a character's working-class origins will usually turn sour and cruel, yet there is no bitterness here except toward bureaucratic facelessness. The Kerrigans take pride in their "averageness" when in fact, they're eccentric as all get-out.

Caton has a few feelings about the film getting accused of patronizing its family. "Quite a few critics in Australia thought that way. But in actual fact, I always saw those few as people who had come from a working class background, dragged themselves up by their bootstraps, and I think of them, frankly speaking, as class traitors. They didn't want to be reminded where they came from. Quite a few of the top critics wrote, 'How dare you,' y'know, 'How dare you portray Australia like that?' But you know those ugly boots I was wearing? They were mine. Most of the clothes I wore, I wrapped them around me because they made me comfortable. The sweatshirt that's spattered with paint? That's my sweatshirt. I'd been painting houses to make a living. So they were talking about me as much as 'The Castle.' "

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