Australian cinema has tackled the experience of its Aboriginal peoples for many decades, however in recent years there has been a particular increase in such films – as well as a commensurate improvement in quality. There have been excellent films released over the years, but the frequency with which these productions emerge feels as if it has increased. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) was a particular success, and has been followed by the likes of Top End Wedding, The Nightingale, The Flood, and in 2020 Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s High Ground. It is a boldly conceived and riveting work.
In 1923, World War I veteran Travis (Simon Baker) is called back to northern Australia’s Arnhem Land to hunt down the Aboriginal leader Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) – who has been leading attacks against white colonial settlements. For Travis the mission has a personal dimension: 12 years earlier he failed to prevent a massacre of Baywara’s community. When Travis takes on Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), the sole survivor of that massacre, as his tracker, he inadvertently sets up a chain of events that put everyone in danger.
Strip away the setting, the individual characters, and the political commentary, and High Ground is a rock-solid, emotionally effective western. Its photography highlights the natural landscape of Arnhem Land with rich and vivid detail. It emphasises the frontier aspect of white colonialism in line with American western traditions. There is also a rugged individualism among the white characters in keeping with the same. Moments of violence spark with an aggressive, blunt energy. On an even more superficial level, this is by-and-large a film about men on horses.
All of this forms a strong background, but foregrounded is a powerful exploration of white-on-black violence, cultural assimilation, and overall racial politics in early 20th century Australia. As a nation Australia continues to discuss and negotiate its crimes against its first peoples, and narrative film is one of the most effective methods of doing that. High Ground benefits enormously from largely including flawed characters, whether good people making bad choices, or acting out of ignorance, or simply approaching the crisis with blinkered intentions. The focus of the conflict is Gutjuk, a young man brilliantly played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul. He was ripped from his community by violence, raised benevolently but in a damaging fashion, and then forced to take sides between his own culture and the one forced upon him. It gives the film a firm emotional centre around which the other characters may orbit.
It is a strong cast all round, led by Simon Baker as the reluctant and haunted Travis, Sean Mununggurr as the valiant Baywara, and Witiyana Marika as Grandfather Dharrpa. A particular highlight is Australian screen icon Jack Thompson as Moran, an odious colonial overseer with a high regard for pomp and a complete ignorance of Indigenous Australian culture.
High Ground is a powerful and hugely effective film, fronting up to significant and necessary debates over Australian culture and identity, while sugar-coated in satisfying genre tropes to make the bitter pill of history more palatable for the masses. 2020 and 2021 have been great years for Australian cinema. With American studios holding back their blockbuster releases due to COVID-19, it has given Australian films an unprecedented chance to grab the spotlight. High Ground is one of the best.