David Stratton is the doyen of Australian cinema. He is a respected film critic who has watched in excess of 25,000 films, peed on Fellini and entertained Australians for decades through his movie reviews with sparring partner Margaret Pomeranz. David Stratton: A Cinematic Life is a documentary about his life and brilliant career and is not unlike the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself in that they’re both personal and engaging looks at two influential men with an infectious passion for the silver screen.
This documentary is directed by Sally Aitken (Getting Frank Gehry, Streets of Your Town) and is a companion piece to a longer mini-series about Australian cinema, which will air on television later this year. Perhaps as a result of this, A Cinematic Life proves to be an ambitious undertaking, as it attempts to tell a number of different stories. It’s about Australia’s best known film critic as well as a brief history of Australian cinema and both of these stories are enough to fill several films or books.
A Cinematic Life focuses on some key facets of Stratton’s history and personality. There was his childhood spent in Britain where he wrote his first review as a boy (he has these and the ones he penned for Variety and The Australian on file in a card system that is reminiscent of libraries prior to the advent of computers.) He cultivated a love for cinema and immigrated to Australia in 1963. Stratton is candid in talking about his estrangement from his father and the feeling that he was the black sheep in his family (he likens this feeling to Muriel Heslop’s character in Muriel’s Wedding). Stratton’s brother, Roger appears here and says he’d die happy if he never watched another film and their father was furious when David failed to return to England to help head the grocery business, which had been in the family for generations.
When Stratton arrived in Australia in the sixties the local film industry was virtually non-existent but people like Stratton helped to build it up. He served as the director of the Sydney Film Festival for 17 years, championed local films and was vocal in his opposition against draconian film censorship rules. This outspokenness did not go unnoticed; during the Cold War, Stratton was under surveillance by ASIO when all he was doing was obtaining visas to attend the Mosco International Film Festival.
This documentary weaves together scenes from important Australian films (from the 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang to recent hit, The Dressmaker and many in between) and it also has Stratton visit some important settings like Hanging Rock and the site of the house from The Castle. A veritable who’s who of Australian entertainment are interviewed, including actors: Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Sam Neill, Judy Davis, Jacki Weaver, Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving as well as directors: Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, among others.
David Stratton: A Cinematic Life can be a little disjointed as it crams in as much as possible into its 110 minute runtime. But it remains a personal and fascinating documentary and a celebration of both Stratton’s legacy and Australian cinema as a whole. For people like David, cinema isn’t just celluloid it’s a way of life and it’s something that should be part of your day-to-day (Stratton tries to see at least one film every day.) A Cinematic Life is quite simply a love letter to our home-grown talent and one that will make you want to sit down and watch all of the films included here plus so many more. And with Stratton as the narrator and guide, we know that we are in for one hell of a time at the movies.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
You can catch some special Q & A screenings of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life with David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz prior to its official release date on March 9.