Movie Review: My Name is Gulpilil (2021), Australia, 2021. Starring David Gulpilil. Directed by Molly Reynolds. 101 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language)
As an actor, dancer and performer, David Gulpilil has been an Australian icon for 50 years. Diagnosed with cancer in 2017, this is his story as told by himself.
2021 sees the 50th anniversary of the release of Nicholas Roeg’s celebrated film, Walkabout. 2021 also sees David Gulpilil turning 68 (1 July). However, he has not been in good health in recent years, being diagnosed with cancer in 2017, which has necessitated chemotherapy and the need for continued care.
However, just as he was 50 years ago, he is still a demanding screen presence. He knows where the camera is. He knows where to look, when to look away, when to capture a moment. As he says, he was in other people’s films, so this is now his film. Australian and international audiences will be grateful for this opportunity to be reacquainted – to get to know him again, or to discover how significant and iconic he has been for Australians and for the film industry.
Director Molly Reynolds has worked with David Gulpilil and with her partner, director, Rolf de Heer, for more than 20 years (Twelve Canoes, Another Country). She has been filming interviews with Gulpilil for several years – when his cancer was diagnosed and it was thought he would not have long to live, when the treatment enabled some improvement with his health, and when he was more active. But, all the time, he is talking to camera, reminiscing, celebrating his successes, and confessing to his failures, his time in prison in Darwin, his violence towards his wife, drinking and drugs and, an admission looking to camera, that he is an alcoholic.
His reminiscences go back before his being “discovered” for Walkabout. He is proud of being full-blood, trained by his father to be a dancer, the Kingfisher his totem, his appreciation of growing up in his community, family, with friends. Almost immediately after the initial moments of seeing him as an old man, we see him in Walkabout, teenager, enthusiastic, performer, dancer, skilled before the camera. And then, haircut, suit and tie, he and his friend on the plane to the Cannes Film Festival, to London, the press junket, an overwhelming experience – his liking of the cities as good places to visit but he wouldn’t want to live in them!
This documentary doesn’t do a year-by-year biography or analysis of his career. Rather, this is David Gulpilil remembering, reminiscing, both good and bad times. There are glimpses of sequences from nine of his films, especially Storm Boy and The Tracker, and, one that we might have been waiting for, a scene from Crocodile Dundee (and the young actor able to communicate Paul Hogan-esque jokes in Hoge’s style).
One of the features of this film is the technique of photographing the actor-dancer in Australian landscapes, stills, very painterly, the man in his environment, giving us a good amount of time just to gaze at him, to appreciate him, to appreciate him in the range of Australian locations and scenery.
And then, unexpectedly, perhaps, to many of us, who are not familiar with his One-Man Show, some funny sequences with him on stage (directed by Neil Armfield, 2004) where he narrates his visit to England, a meal with Her Majesty, the Queen of England, all to do with her helping him to find and how to hold knives and forks, difficulties with cutting the meat, then mouth on plate – and her Majesty gallantly adapting to his eating style! And then a phone call to Ernie Dingo about being in a new Crocodile Dundee film.
David Gulpilil has gone much more gently into his old age and his illness, living in Murray Bridge, South Australia, looked after by a jovial white mother-figure-carer, Mary Reefed. The film documents their quiet daily activities – walks, collecting the post, taking his medicines (and his identifying them all), and just taking it easier as he moves towards his death, which he acknowledges, as well as taking this opportunity, as he reminds us often, that this is his film.
My Name is Gulpilil will be broadcast on ABC TV on Sunday 11 July, and later available on ABC iview. You can also rent or purchase it from Apple TV, Google Play or Ritz at Home.
Released 27 May
Peter Malone MSC is an associate writer for Jesuit Media.
Reproduced with permission from Australian Catholics, a publication of Jesuit Communications Australia.