10 great Australian New Wave films

As the haunting mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock appears on BFI Player, we plot a course through 10 other landmark movies from the era that put Australian cinema on the map.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

After a three-decade-long hiatus in local cinema following the Second World War, the early 1970s saw the start of a highly productive period of Australian filmmaking. Increased commonwealth and state government funding, tax breaks to encourage investment in local production and an atmosphere of cultural nationalism resulted in more than 400 films being produced between 1970 and 1985.

Coinciding with the collapse of Australia’s strict postwar censorship system, the New Wave era is characterised by liberal depictions of sex and violence, as well as a readiness to re-examine accepted tenets of Australian history and identity. The same era also gave rise to the overlapping but less respectable body of filmmaking known as Ozploitation: low-budget horror, comedy and action films that played off everyday aspects of Australian culture. Both strands flourished as the 70s progressed.

Now available to stream on BFI Player, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is a landmark film of the New Wave. Set in 1900, it tells the story of three students and a teacher from a strict girls’ boarding school who vanish without a trace during a picnic at a volcanic outcrop known as Hanging Rock (a real place in central Victoria).

This enigmatic, visually stunning film was directed by Peter Weir, who went on to become a major force in Australian cinema before heading to Hollywood. Focusing on the ramifications of the disappearance on the school and the surrounding community, the film emits a hothouse atmosphere of Victorian adolescent female sexuality, showing the futile attempts to control it. Weir also mixes in elements of folk horror, hinting at white colonial society’s estrangement from the Australian landscape and its original Indigenous inhabitants.

Here are 10 more watershed films of the Australian New Wave.

Wake in Fright (1971)

Director Ted Kotcheff

Wake In Fright (1971)

Mild-mannered teacher John Grant leaves his outback school for the Christmas break with his holiday pay in his pocket and plans to meet his girlfriend in Sydney. Stopping on route at Bundanyabba (the tough outback mining town of Broken Hill), he loses his money in an Australian betting game called two-up. Stranded, he is plunged into an alcohol-soaked few days with the locals that will strip his identity and threaten his sanity.

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright was directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff and starred English actor Gary Bond as Grant and Donald Pleasence as the debauched outback libertine Doc Tydon. Although local audiences were not impressed, it was an international hit and is credited with starting the rejuvenation of the local film industry. Half a century after its release it is hard to think of another film that comes close to its harsh and visceral depiction of Australian masculinity, the national drinking culture and the latent violence of the outback.

The Devil’s Playground (1976)

Director Fred Schepisi

The Devil's Playground (1976)

A coming-of-age story set in a rural Catholic seminary in the 1950s, The Devil’s Playground examined sexual repression in the church from the perspective of the students and the teachers. Thirteen-year-old Tom (Simon Burke) struggles with puberty and the seminary’s all-encompassing vigilance for any sign of moral degeneracy. Brother Victor (Nick Tate) drinks to deal with doubts about his faith and pent-up sexual feelings.

Directed by Fred Schepisi, it’s a slow-burning, contemplative film that now feels understated, given what we have since learned about clerical abuse in the Catholic church. But all the signs of what was happening in secret then and has since become public are there: an all-male environment in which the pupils and teachers alike wage an unwinnable war against their own bodies, thoughts and desires, for women and, at times, each other.

The Last Wave (1977)

Director Peter Weir

The Last Wave (1977)

David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) leaves the safety of his corporate tax practice to defend five Indigenous men accused of murder. His attempts to get to the bottom of the case coincide with him having increasingly apocalyptic dreams of the world being engulfed by water and premonitions involving one of his clients, Lee (David Gulpilil). Burton soon realises there is much more to the case, including a sacred Indigenous site deep under Sydney, the theft of artefacts, and the possibility – an idea with considerable cultural currency in the 1970s – that aliens visited earth in the early stages of humankind’s development.

Another masterful release by Peter Weir, following his watershed New Wave titles The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave fuses tropes associated with the ‘when nature attacks’ cycle of horror films popular in the 1970s and 80s with a prescient take on changing climate. It’s also a relatively sophisticated attempt to engage with Indigenous mythology and spirituality, and the clash between Aboriginal and western law.

Money Movers (1978)

Director Bruce Beresford

Money Movers (1978)

This tough heist film opens with two armoured-car drivers, Eric Jackson (Terence Donovan) and his brother (Bryan Brown), planning a robbery of the company where they work. The carefully organised scheme rapidly goes south when it comes to the attention of a big businessman-cum-criminal (another veteran Australian actor, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) who needs funds to keep his textile factory afloat, and who deals himself in on the robbery.

An early effort by another New Wave stalwart, Bruce Beresford, Money Movers is as far away from Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – the best picture Oscar-winning film he made after decamping to Hollywood – as one can get. It’s a hard-boiled, uber-masculine crime story, with an anonymous Sydney standing in for the archetypal noir ‘bad town’, where everyone is corrupt. What really sets this film apart, however, is its uniquely 1970s pre-economic deregulation sense of Australian class conflict, with no love lost between management and workers. The Jackson brothers’ desire to rip off their own management is taken as a given.

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Director Gillian Armstrong

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Gillian Armstrong’s second film saw her recognised as a major talent, a significant break from the otherwise male-dominated nature of New Wave Australian film in the 1970s. The screenplay by Eleanor Witcombe, based on the 1901 novel of the same name by one of Australia’s most famous writers, Stella Miles Franklin, deftly depicts the paucity of options available to women of all classes in the early days of settler society.

The central character, Sybylla Melvyn (24-year-old Judy Davis), is an intelligent, headstrong young woman whose unswerving desire to make a literary career for herself sees her branded difficult and unpredictable by those around her. Moving between makeshift farm huts and middle-class affluence, the film exhibits a distinctly impressionistic look, as opposed to the harsher and more starkly rendered depictions of the Australian countryside that often-dominated 1970s Australian cinema.

Thirst (1979)

Director Rod Hardy

Thirst (1979)

Straddling the line between New Wave and Ozploitation, Rod Hardy’s Thirst is a wonderfully eccentric Australian take on the vampire film. Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri) has a rewarding job as a high-powered fashion executive, a beautiful house and a loving and attentive boyfriend. Unbeknown to her, she is also the descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a real-life Hungarian noblewoman and vampiric murderer. This makes Kate the target of the Australian wing of an international vampire cult, ‘The Brotherhood’, who kidnap and hold her prisoner in an attempt to reconcile her to her true identity.

Thirst combines action cinema dynamics with high camp flourishes associated with some of Hammer’s later vampire movies. It was also ahead of its time in terms of its take on the vampire as ruling class corporate entity. A solid local cast is augmented by overseas talent David Hemmings and Henry Silva.

Puberty Blues (1981)

Director Bruce Beresford

Puberty Blues (1981)

Debbie and Sue are two girls in their late teens whose main aim is to be admitted as ‘surfie chicks’, the girls who hang around the gang of local male surfers at their school. Despite taking place in a very distinct social milieu, the beachside suburbs of southern Sydney, there is plenty in this film that will be familiar to anyone who came of age in the 1970s and 80s: parties, underage drinking, often absent parenting, and plenty of shallow-minded, at times openly misogynistic boys.

Margaret Kelly’s screenplay was a toned-down version of a 1979 book of the same name, with the resulting film praised by some as feminist filmmaking and scandalising others for its depiction of gang rape, teenage drug use and miscarriage. Puberty Blues comes across as somewhat stilted today, but it doesn’t take much to imagine how daring and unusual it must have seemed in early 1980s Australia.

Heatwave (1982)

Director Phillip Noyce

Heatwave (1982)

Stephen West (Richard Moir) is an idealistic architect who justifies his involvement in the demolition of a working-class Sydney suburb because of the building that will replace it: a revolutionary eco-friendly apartment complex he designed, known as Eden. After a series of events that see West become involved with the protesters opposed to the development and intimate with their fiery leader, Kate (Judy Davis), he discovers Eden was never intended to happen and that he is merely being used as a front for organised criminal interests.

Heatwave was based on the real-life 1975 disappearance of a prominent female activist against large-scale urban development in Sydney. Directed by Phillip Noyce, later known for Dead Calm (1989) and Rabbit-proof Fence (2002), it’s politically sharp without coming across as didactic. An atmospheric, well-made thriller that belongs among the small group of Australian films with a genuine noir sensibility.

Bliss (1985)

Director Ray Lawrence

Bliss (1985)

In an unnamed Australian city, jaded advertising executive Harry Joy (Barry Otto) suffers a major heart attack. When he regains consciousness, his world is a very different place. His wife (Lynette Curran) is openly unfaithful, his daughter trades sex for drugs from his narcotics-dealing son, an escaped circus elephant sits on his car, and his firm’s biggest client is outed as a major polluter. Believing he is actually in hell, Joy embarks on a process of righting wrongs he committed in his past life and falls into a relationship with a rebellious sex-worker-cum-hippy-drop-out.

Bliss is one of only three films to date directed by Ray Lawrence (he returned in the 2000s with Lantana and Jindabyne), who also wrote the script in collaboration with Peter Carey, adapted from the author’s 1981 novel of the same name. The film received mixed reviews on release, no doubt because it was unlike anything else that had been made until that time in Australia. By turns surreal, malevolent and touching, Bliss has a wonderful local cast and a deliciously misanthropic take on the ‘greed is good’ decade.

The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

Director John Duigan

The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

This poignant film stars Noah Taylor in one of his earliest big-screen leading roles as Danny Embling, an eccentric, bookish teenager in a small town on the rural southern tablelands of New South Wales in the early 1960s. The story revolves around the repercussions when Danny’s tomboy best friend and unrequited love, Freya (Loene Carmen), becomes involved with the essentially decent but trouble-prone juvenile delinquent, Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn).

The Year My Voice Broke plays somewhat to stereotypes, but the direction and script by John Duigan is so assured and has such a delightful light touch that it’s hard not to like the final product. There’s also a terrific soundtrack, beguiling landscapes and the story is awash with mid-century Australian cultural references. It was the first of an intended trilogy, with the second and so far only other instalment, Flirting (1991), featuring Danny now at boarding school, also a must see.