A Film Ian Likes: Spotswood (1991)

Balls Moccasin factory is trying to become more economical. They hire time-and-motion expert Errol Wallace to take a look at their factory and see where they can become more efficient and increase their production or reduce expenses. Watched by the arrogant Kim, who sees Wallace as his ticket out of the factory, and assisted by the gormless Carey who only has eyes for Mr Ball’s daughter Cheryl, Wallace makes his way through the factory, discovering that things aren’t running as smoothly as Mr Ball has led him to believe…

But before we do anything else, let’s take a look at the pedigree of this film. It’s written by Max Dann and Andrew Knight. Max Dann is one of the busiest Australian writers of the last fifty years. He’s written everything: novels, kids’ books, screenplays for film and television across so many genres and budgets. Andrew Knight is a television legend: he’s written with or for just about everyone who’s ever worked on an Australian screen. Both of them contributed to The Fast Lane, one of my favourite TV shows, which is something they have in common with the director, Mark Joffe, who also worked on several other movies and shows.

So let’s move on to the cast. Oh my word… that cast. At the time of release (1992), Ben Mendelsohn (Carey) may well have been one of the most recognisable actors in Australia. It’s taken over twenty years for him to become as well-known overseas but now everybody gets to share one of our best talents. He’s joined by Anthony Hopkins as Wallace, the mild-mannered efficiency expert. As a point of trivia, this film was released just after The Silence Of The Lambs (but I think it was produced just before) which means that it was probably the last time Mr Hopkins could have realistically considered making a “little” film such as this. His bank account’s loss is our gain, frankly. As Kim we have Russel Crowe who was just a few months away from portraying Hando in Romper Stomper, widely considered his breakout role (it’s really a toss-up between that and Proof). Finally, there’s Toni Colette (just a short time before she came to all our attentions in Muriel’s Wedding) as Wendy, Carey’s neighbour and best friend. And that’s just the main characters! In supporting roles we have the likes of Bruno Lawrence, Angela Punch MacGregor, Rebecca Rigg and Alwyn Kurtz.

The script is a delight, too. At this point in time, Australian movies were still using “quirky” characters as a feature rather than the bug they were in the process of becoming. Spotswood is full of eccentrics: from the lads in the storeroom who are practicing their dancing while Wallace takes his first tour of the factory floor to the little side characters (Carey’s brother who is obsessed with measuring every aspect of their house instantly springs to mind). You get the impression that the moccasin factory is a safe space for these gentle naïfs to flourish without being squashed by the outside world. This is nicely balanced by the character of Kim who really does feel far too ruthless and egotistical for the small world he works in. It also offsets the glimpses of Wallace’s usual workplaces where he routinely disrupts the lives of hundreds of working people in the name of efficiency. Joffe’s direction in the scenes where Wallace is confronted by the families of the people he has just shafted is chilling and makes a superb counterpoint to the pocket world of the moccasin factory.

This film is not as well-known as some other films released at the time. I’m not sure why, because I bloody love it. Part of it may be that it’s a very small story: it doesn’t have the broad appeal of a fish-out-of-water story like Crocodile Dundee or the aforementioned Muriel’s Wedding. It doesn’t have the edgy flamboyance or a soundtrack soaked in memories like The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert Another reason may be that it was a mildly historical story but possibly too recent for the regular audience to feel properly nostalgic about, or not one that dealt with “issues” of the time (thinking on it, there was no real reason that it needed to be set in the early 70s: the story could have been told at any point in the post-war period without losing any impact. Indeed, the whole point of the story was one that was really relevant to the recession-we-had-had-to-have-struck audience of the release date). There’s also the problem with Wallace’s past: he’s a toecutter who’s had a change of heart but is he really redeemed? It’s a bit like Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman (a big hit the year before Spotswood was released): it’s terrific that he’s changed, but what about the immense number of ruined families and lives he’s left behind him? What happens to them?

It’s also a fairly “drab” film: the palette is soaked in browns and greens, with lots of scenes set inside the factory or during the evening or even later. Many of the daylight scenes take place during the rain (it was filmed in Melbourne, after all) and one of the few sequences with any flash of colour (the wonderful slot car race that contributes to Wallace’s change of heart) is over all too quickly.

But it’s worth it for the wonderful performances from the lead actors, the Ealing-esque quality of the dialogue and supporting characters and the leisurely manner in which the story unfolds. It’s not epic or “timely” or incisive, it’s just a slow sprawl of a bildungsroman that makes you feel a bit better about people.

There’s more information about Spotswood (or The Efficiency Expert as it is also known) over on its IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102969/

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