Has any Australian in history directed more great films than Peter Weir? Other highly influential movie-makers such as George Miller, Phillip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong emerged during the same intensely artistic period: the hotbed of the 1970s, in an era that came to be known as the Australian New Wave.
But Weir’s body of work is something else: more than a dozen films (none of them bad, many of them great) canvassing a variety of genres including war stories, thrillers, dramas and a certain Jim Carrey movie about a reality TV star named Truman.
It’s now been a decade since Weir’s last film, The Way Back. Now that the veteran is 76 years old, it’s highly possible – if not likely – that he’s filled out his dance card and is in effect retired. With that in mind, the question beckons: which are Weir’s greatest productions?
We’ve revisited all Weir’s films and grappled with the difficult job of ranking them from worst to best.
14. The Way Back (2010)
Beginning as a wintry prison break-out movie and evolving into an extreme weather survival story, a bunch of men – including Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess and a very scruffy-looking Ed Harris – bust out of a Siberian gulag circa 1940 and trek 4,000 miles to India.
The coldness of that initial setting sticks to the rest of the film, which is well-acted and -staged but feels oddly distanced from its characters, as if an invisible icy wall separates us and them. Picturesque settings provide grand scaffolding for comparatively minute human dramas contrasted against them, much like in David Lean films.
13. Fearless (1993)
Jeff Bridges plays the survivor of a terrible aeroplane crash who is unusually calm during the accident, which is slowly parcelled out in flashback sequences. Weir counters his protagonist’s carefree personality with the intensely grieving Carla (a moving, high-impact Rosie Perez) who lost her baby in the crash. With a lo-fi TV drama look, the director pushes his performances and characters to the fore – particularly Bridges who, like his character, is annoyingly smug and insouciant.
The story coasts along well enough, but the end result is thematically dubious. Fearless is neither a study of grief nor an inspirational message to live life to the fullest; it’s probably best interpreted as an idiosyncratic character drama with an existential twist.
12. The Plumber (1979)
Made for television but released theatrically in the United States, this chatty chamber piece-esque thriller unfolds mostly in an apartment. Masters student Jill (Judy Morris) is interrupted by a long-haired and vociferous plumber (Ivar Kants) who unexpectedly arrives and seems determined to embed himself in her life – like Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. The question soon becomes: is this man dangerous?
Boosted by an uncomfortably tense performance by Kants in the titular role and a believably desperate turn from Morris, The Plumber is a gradual, performance-heavy thriller with the vibe of a filmed play. Simmering dramas eventually boil over into direct confrontation.
11. Green Card (1990)
Weir’s only romantic comedy avoids overt sentimentality while still satisfying expectations and providing endearing characters to root for. A ‘will they or won’t they’ arc stretches for virtually the entire running time, with American horticulturist Brontë (Andie MacDowell) and immigrant Georges Fauré (Gérard Depardieu) in a sham marriage. She’s in it to land an awesome apartment available only to couples; he wants a green card.
To prepare for interviews conducted by immigration authorities, the pair must partake in a crash course on each other’s lives – which is a neat way for Weir to break the ‘show don’t tell’ dictum and bombard us with character information. MacDowell and Depardieu are charming in the ‘opposites attract’ mould, their developing chemistry leading to an excellent, bittersweet ending many cuts above standard romcom fare.
10. Witness (1985)
A crime thriller dressed up as a kind of anthropological investigation, with a characteristically gruff Harrison Ford playing a cop who protects a key witness in a murder trial – an Amish boy – by going undercover and joining the Amish community. During the Amish bits you forget you’re watching a cop movie; during the cop bits you forget you’re watching a film about the Amish. The pace dips at times but the pieces come together, making a memorable twist on a familiar genre format.
9. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)
Some will be unhappy that this Russell Crowe-led on-the-seas adventure, set during the Napoleonic Wars, didn’t rank higher on this list – but hey, it has stiff competition.
Crowe is established as a my-way-or-the-plank alpha male, determined to pursue a French enemy vessel despite captaining a damaged ship. Weir fills the frame with oxygen and creates a grand, open, painterly look, finding plenty to explore in a mostly single (albeit floating) setting. The film is well acted and immersively staged, but has a stiff formalism to it in its ye olde aesthetic and its neatly templated three-act structure.
8. The Mosquito Coast (1986)
A Weir film penned by legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader – what a combo! Schraderisms are evident in the mad-as-hell dialogue of protagonist Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), an inventor and outside-the-box thinker whose favourite subject is how America is going to the dogs. So much so that he decides to move to the jungles of Central America, as you do, and build a new life there with his family, including his wife (Helen Mirren) and four sons (one of whom is played by River Phoenix). But the promise of paradise morphs into an increasingly precarious reality.
Shrader’s script is well-written and the lush surroundings are soaked like a high-powered sponge. The pace feels neither fast nor slow; you can’t help but fall into its rhythms. River Phoenix’s sparingly used narration could have been twee, but adds a meaningful layer in an exploration of a son coming to terms with his father.
7. The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)
Set in Jakarta in the 1960s, during the overthrow of President Sukarno, this rousing, revolution-themed drama captures the dangerous volatility of political upheaval and the possibilities of change. At its core is a memorable dynamic between foreign correspondent Guy (Mel Gibson) and Chinese-Australian photographer Billy, whose rich voice-over narration imbues the film with a novel-like quality.
He is played by the diminutive Linda Hunt, who is, of course, a woman. In a bold casting move, Weir hired Hunt simply because she was the best actor for the part. Hunt proved a magnetic presence, inseparable from the film’s raison d’être, and went on to win an Academy Award for her troubles. While her Oscar was lauded as the first given to an actor for playing a character of a different gender, there has been online backlash in recent years, with some accusing Hunt of playing the character in yellowface.
6. The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
Weir bolted out of the gates with a feature debut that occupies a distinct place in the canon of batshit crazy Australian car movies. This stuck-in-nowheresville drama takes place in an Australian country town called Paris, where the local economy relies on a continuous supply of wrecked vehicles, which the residents create by causing accidents. The latest victim Arthur (Terry Camilleri) soon discovers the community is run by a despotic mayor (John Meillon).
At one point a scene depicting crazily modified cars crashing into each other is immediately followed by a visit to a church to watch the congregation sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Told with a scrappy balls-to-the-wall spirit, this is freaky-deaky social commentary, satirising the dominant place automobiles occupy in the Australian psyche.
5. Gallipoli (1981)
The greatest Australian war movie ever made first opened in 1981. We can only imagine the gasps and shell-shocked silence that must have swept through cinemas as the closing credits appeared, following a gut-wrenching final moment that distils this powerful picture’s anti-war messages into a single, unforgettable, gooseflesh-raising image.
Mark Lee plays Archy, a runner who famously regards his legs as “springs, steel springs” that enable him to run “as fast as a leopard”. He and his pal Frank (Mel Gibson) put their athletic ambitions on hold and arrive on the shores of Gallipoli, where Weir implies rather than directly illustrates the smoke and fury of battle. His understated approach leads to a visceral, nerve-jangling final 20 minutes, culminating in that can’t-watch-but-can’t-look-away ending. Once seen, never forgotten.
4. The Last Wave (1977)
Conjuring a dream-like atmosphere haunted by an encroaching sense of dread, Weir’s film about a lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) whose new case upturns his life isn’t a straightforward courtroom drama. It’s one of his most ambitious works, using a murder case to bring to life visions projected in the protagonist’s head while merging ideas from Aboriginal mythology into a modern end-of-days narrative.
Weather becomes an instrument for evoking terror, and water is a key motif: the title takes on an oddly literal quality as events become increasingly apocalyptic. Merging the real and the fantastical, the great David Gulpilil (who co-stars in a significant supporting role) called The Last Wave the “first film to authentically describe Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology”.
3. Dead Poets Society (1989)
O captain, my captain! These words belong to a poem written by Walt Whitman in 1865, but these days they are more commonly associated with Weir’s coming-of-age classic, set in a private boys’ school and starring Robin Williams in one of his most cherished roles. He plays an eccentric, rules-be-damned teacher who inspires his students to rip up the curriculum (literally, in one scene) and think for themselves.
The film’s endorsement of good-natured rebellion, and its core message of contemplating life from a different perspective, is literalised in its most iconic image: capturing students standing on their desks. There is a tragic element in the story of one of them (Robert Sean Leonard), which takes the narrative to a dark place and leads to the punishment of the kind teacher rather than the oppressive parents.
But ultimately it is very inspiring: about speaking and behaving with purpose, and the potential for our words and actions to move and motivate people around us.
2. The Truman Show (1998)
Working from a brilliant screenplay by Andrew Niccol, Weir fleshes out a simple premise: what if somebody was the star of a reality TV show and they didn’t know it?
That person is goofy insurance salesman Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who doesn’t realise his life is a media spectacle and his entire universe one big soundstage managed by a TV director (Ed Harris) determined to keep him within the confines of a scripted existence.
Weir and Niccol tap into many interesting discussions, including the exploitative consequences of voyeurism and the end of privacy. Borrowing themes from Kafka and Baudrillard, the film argues that reality is neither just a matter of the mind nor a physical world governed by immutable laws. It’s also an environment created and manipulated by vested interests.
1. Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Describing this wild fever dream as a work of atmosphere is an epic understatement. Rarely does a film – or indeed any work of art – rock the psyche and haunt the senses like Picnic At Hanging Rock, which seems to owe more to the messy grammar of nightmares than the conventions of filmmaking.
You know, by now, the narrative or at least the broad beats of it: a group of young women, who are private school students, vanish at the eponymous Victorian location in the early 1900s. There is no resolution; no neat three-act structure.
Weir reiterates the idea that reality in this world is not quite right, with one of the girls reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem about life as a matryoshka doll of inceptions: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
That sense of reality as a slippery construct extends everywhere, even informing the way the director frames the rocks and boulders at the titular location. They seem like alien monoliths: the building blocks of a nightmare. Bruce Smeaton’s pan flute-heavy score further heightens a masterpiece that resonates more as an experience than a story, more as a feeling than a film.