Aussie movies about being Aussies can be a bit of a gamble. When they go wrong, they rely so much on the Aussieness of it all, that they come off as a tone deaf outsider looking in, and you get something Australia or Welcome to Woop Woop. But when they get it right, they get it right by telling a universally relatable story, just with a little local spin or flare. Death in Brunswick is a story that could happen anywhere, but to justify the name, they give it the perfect amount of local flavour to make sure it’s a story that can only be told this particular way, by setting it in this particular place.
Living in a rundown dump in the titular Melbourne suburb, Sam Neill’s Carl seems like a bit of a depressed mess. He has no job, he’s obviously been through a serious break up, and his overbearing, overly critical mother is staying with him, pointing out his every foible. Things look to be improving when he gets a job as the chef at a local night club where he meets cute bar girl Sophie (Zoe Caridis) and indifferent kitchen hand, Mustafa (Nick Lothouris).
After just one shift, Carl is on the doorstep of his best friend Dave (John Clarke), needing a friend to talk to as he processes his immediate love for Sophie. Once his feelings are reciprocated, things start to get complicated. There’s Sophie’s strict Greek father, Mustafa’s dodgy dealings in the night club kitchen, as well altercations with shifty night club owner Yanni (Nicholas Papademetriou) and bouncer Laurie (Boris Brkic in what be the worst performance I’ve ever seen in a well made, professional movie).
Sam Neill and especially John Clarke are both really great. A little too great. As an Australian, my patriotic pride is a little bummed that these quintessentially Aussie characters were played so well by a couple of kiwis. But I got over that pretty quick once I realised almost every single line of dialogue delivered by Clarke would make me laugh.
I currently live in the next suburb over from Brunswick, but when this move was made, I was a 9 year old kid in small town Queensland. So an added point of interest for me was seeing how my current hood has changed over the last quarter of a century. And, physically, it kind of hasn’t. The main drag where so many of Death in Brunswick’s exteriors were shot looks pretty much the same with its weird blend of industrial and retail. And Carl’s dump of a house isn’t much worse than some of the shit boxes I looked at in that area last time I was looking for a place to rent.
But the people have certainly changed. It’s still hugely multi-cultural and there are still plenty of people like Carl and Sophie. But these days, the hipster gentrification means there are also a lot of moustaches, skinny jeans and fedoras paying way too much rent to live in the same run down mess as Carl.
At first, the immediate relationship between Carl and Sophie struck me as just too convenient and lazy from a story point of view. But by the end, a revelation hit me about the kind of movie Death in Brunswick really is. These are heightened characters, living heightened, crazy lives that juts so happen to be set in this very mundane world of 1990 Melbourne. The convenient plot elements are all part of the pulpy story and are what make it so fun, even amongst a lot of dark humour. It’s a delicate balance that rarely gets executed as well as it is here.