A lot of Australian cinema focuses on ‘Suburbia’ and the existential crises faced therein to the point where the formula has lost much of its impact; these are supposedly “important” films about life and society that never stop reminding the viewer of their importance. Fortunately there’s been a move away from this in recent times with genre movies such as Tomorrow When the War Began, Not Suitable for Children, These Final Hours and Predestination to name just a few. Although not always ‘critically acclaimed’, these movies show versatility and, more importantly; they’re entertaining, they can comment on important issues without being bleak and calling it realism. Joining this growing list is Last Cab to Darwin.
Directed by Jeremy Sims and based on the 2003 stage play written by Reg Cribb, Last Cab is about an old taxi driver named Rex (Michael Caton) who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and given three months to live. Set in 1995 when the Northern Territory controversially passed the voluntary euthanasia law, Rex decides to take advantage of this opportunity and drive from his hometown of Broken Hill to Darwin in a final attempt to show control over his fate.
Being such a small town, Rex is known to the residents of Broken Hill and regularly shares a drink with his mates at the pub. He’s even in a quasi-relationship with his Aboriginal neighbour Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), which he keeps secret because of the racist undertones of the town. All of this should make it harder for him to leave and yet he’s steadfast. With a quick goodbye he sets off, though it’s clear how hard the decision is for him. On his way to Darwin, he meets an Aboriginal man named Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) who fixes Rex’s windshield in exchange for a ride to his home in Oodnadatta.
Much of the film’s strength lies with the characters. Often whenever we see Aboriginal actors in Australian films their role focuses on their disadvantages and societal issues they face. Last Cab does not ignore these very important issues, but rather than sacrificing the characters to make a political statement, it gives them depth and drive so that they become real and not a placeholder or signpost. Ningali Lawford-Wolf is great as Polly. She’s loud and confrontational but more than anything she’s a loving woman. Mark Coles Smith also does a fantastic job as Tilly; he’s witty and upbeat but captures the moments of vulnerability and pain perfectly.
At the centre of it all is Michael Caton. Last Cab has to be his best dramatic role to date and arguably one of his best performances ever. The character of Rex is restrained but full of emotion. No matter how much he wants to be seen as strong and determined, there’s always that hint of fear and doubt underneath. It is the small moments that he experiences with the other characters that make this such a great film to watch.
Other notable performances come from Emma Hamilton as Julie, a backpacker/nurse who helps Rex on his journey to Darwin, and Jacki Weaver as Dr Farmer, who’s leading the fight to make euthanasia become understood and accepted (legally and socially). Although they were excellent in their respective roles, it really does come down to Caton, Lawford-Wolf and Smith. As an ensemble, they play off each other very well and none of their talents are wasted.
It wouldn’t be an Australian film without some beautiful cinematography capturing the vast outback. The iconic red dirt of the Northern Territory is particularly amazing. In reality, a trip from Broken Hill to Darwin would be immensely boring yet movie magic makes the landscape appear far more interesting and forgiving.
Last Cab to Darwin is actually based on a true story, though the real taxi driver’s name is Max Bell. And though the script does take some liberties, it is ultimately a well-crafted and life affirming film that is very Australian without the need to present itself as “important”. It’s Australian cinema as it should be.