Toronto 2015: 'Last Cab to Darwin' review

If there's one thing that Australia has in spades it's miles and miles of open road. Be it tarmacked or dust and dirt, lifelong cab driver, Rex (Michael Caton), covers a fair amount of both driving from Broken Hill, NSW, through Oz's barren Red Centre, to Darwin at the tip of the Northern Territory. His objective in Jeremy Sims' film: to take advantage of new euthanasia laws and cut short the three months he has been given to live after the recurrence of stomach cancer. "No fuckin' hospitals," says Rexy. He's going out on his own terms and that's that. Adapted from Reg Cribb's play by playwright and director, Last Cab to Darwin raises the right-to-die/euthanasia debate, as well as posing questions of inherent racism.

Sims' picture is an endearing tearjerker which deftly and respectfully handles big issues with subtlety and a personal touch. Characteristically sardonic Aussie humour and the antipodean principle of 'mateship' contribute to a story that is as hilarious as it is heart-wrenching. Apart from his dog - named 'Dog' as "Rex was taken" - the closest thing that Broken Hill's number one cabbie has to family is neighbour and part-time lover, Polly. That the central love story of Last Cab to Darwin features a white man and an aboriginal woman, both in the autumn years of life, is a clear indicator of its overall message of unification, but the relationship is organic, genuine and a pure delight.

Played by Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Polly is an absolute firecracker, at times spouting sparks but at others displaying warmth that means all the more after her blind rage and cursing. First introduced in her striking pink dressing gown, yelling at Rex early in the morning for using her bins, she proceeds to cross the road with a cuppa and asks, "How you feeling?" It is the kind of polarised moment that can only come from profound affection, understanding and true love. A smashed windscreen along the way sees Rex meet Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), a young aboriginal man and promising AFL player; father to two kids with a heart of gold, he is rudderless and likes a drink too many. The child that could have been between Rex and Polly, he is taken under the wing of the disgruntled elder and each learns a lot from the other's life experiences; all part of the metaphysical journey. Certain elements of the plot are a little hard to swallow, namely the fact that the boys meet English backpacker Julie (Emma Hamilton) - who just so happens to be a qualified nurse working in the middle of nowhere - at just the right time. Then again, there appear to be higher powers at play here so it's best just to accept that fate has played its hand and run with it.

The clay red of the earth, the sky-blue sky and bumblebee yellow of Rex's cab are more vibrant than a Dulux colour chart and Steve Arnold's photography throughout is breathtaking. Given the setting it would be a challenge not to make the film visually striking but some of the sunsets will have jaws in laps, just as it does for Rex who contemplates such views with awe, having never in his life left the confines of Broken Hill. The score's open-string guitars emphasise the earthiness and forward motion of the action, tying together sound and image effectively. Caton's old leather bag of a face effortlessly emotes resignation, despair, joy, loss, amusement and a dozen other emotions from first to last. Strangely reticent and monosyllabic with his first paying customers, the gradual cracking of his crusty exterior is a joy to watch. Last Cab to Darwin's tagline - 'It's never too late to start living' - is a real cliché, but sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens


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