There’s an inimitable thrill in seeing the streets of your own town onscreen. When media backdropped by kelly-green suburbs where the cars drive on the right-hand side of the road makes up the largest part of your filmic diet, watching Two Hands or Candy feels like a revelation. If you’re from Sydney, you feel compelled to rewind and pause, to play the game of “which King’s Cross bar did Heath Ledger just walk past?” If you’re from elsewhere in Australia, you likely still feel as if you’re looking into a mirror – one that reflects back our tacit history, our speech inflections and our collective liabilities.
The first time I saw John Ruane’s 1990 comedy Death in Brunswick, I’d just moved across the border to its namesake locality. Though I wasn’t yet well-versed in the niches of Sydney Road, it made me feel as if I was. It’s shot very much on location, and this in particular brings a certain geo-cultural fidelity to the film. There’s no doubt this has contributed to its local cult status – there’s even a few threads on the Melbourne sub-Reddit dedicated to placing its scenes down to the exact address. But the weathered Victorian facades above the shopfronts, spliced between red brick and gaudy signage, are as universal as they are specific.
Local films that are made with international audiences at front of mind – think Baz Luhrmann’s Australia – usually fail to generate this spark of recognition. There’s an early scene where Carl – played by Sam Neill on the brink of his Jurassic Park-induced ascent into major stardom – prepares to take a shower in his dilapidated Nash Street home. To do so, he must first set a strongly-worded letter from his landlord alight and toss the flame into a hole in the boiler, then wait for the latte-coloured water to cough out of the showerhead. The scene is a perfect, caustic parody of the urban rental market in Australia, and nearly reminiscent of John Birmingham’s sharehouse gothic He Died with a Felafel in his Hand.
Today vs Death in Brunswick. Carl’s house on Nash Street, Brunswick
A later shot depicts a Halal butchery – which today still stands on the same spot at 609 Sydney Road – next to a pub, the now-shuttered Courthouse hotel. For those of us who live in places like Melbourne’s inner north or Sydney’s inner west, it’s a routine sight – and one that neatly encapsulates the film’s central theme of multiculturalism.
Today vs Death in Brunswick. Istanbul Halal Meat on Sydney Road.
As the stereotype goes, Australians have little trouble broaching a serious subject through comedy. Death in Brunswick is perhaps not as irreverent as the likes of The Wog Boy in its depiction of multicultural Australia, but its humour is decidedly jet-black. The film’s major narrative conflict, an accidental murder and the ensuing gangland war between Brunswick’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, serves as the absurd backdrop to what is essentially a tale of multi-ethnic lovers seeking to break down cultural barriers.
The representation of racialised non-central characters does frequently cross the line into caricature. There’s the father of Carl’s love interest Sophie (Zoe Carides), the overprotective patriarch who punches Carl in the face when he asks his permission to marry her; then there’s the apparent beheading committed by Turkish gang members on the bouncer of the Greek-owned club. Southern European migrant communities are today so synonymous with Australian urban centres that it’s hard to imagine they were once othered to this extent, but the latter jibe feels especially impolitic given the manner of Islamophobia that this country has still failed to shake.
Even so, to dismiss a work of fiction from thirty years ago because its approach to race relations mightn’t fly today would be to patronise its audience. Nobody is watching Death in Brunswick in search of didacticism; if nothing else, it serves as a time capsule of what Brunswick – and Australia – was like, and is like.