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film review: the sapphires

As an Australian film with a star cast, festival acclaim and lots of hype, expectations have been high for The Sapphires. Based on a true story, the film follows four Indigenous women who travel to Vietnam during the war to perform for US marines. It has  has been anything but a disappointment since it opened last week. Grossing over $2 million in its opening weekend alone, the film follows three sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) who decide they are fed up with their lives at home and want it all to be different. Touring Vietnam as a singing group seems like a perfect way to make a change, and it just so happens that the army is looking for acts to send to the war.

The stars align as the sisters meet the heavy-drinking, soul-music-loving Dave (Chris O’Dowd), who becomes their manager and helps them develop their sound, leaving country and western behind for good old-fashioned soul music. They travel to Melbourne to audition for the army and reunite with Kay, adding a fourth to the group. Kay was taken from her mother as a child, as part of the government’s policy towards Indigenous children now known as the ‘Stolen Generation’. Soon enough, the girls and Dave are headed for Saigon. Tensions in the group arise quickly, especially between Gail and Kay.

Romance is also on the cards – Cynthia is determined to get over her home-town love and Kay meets a clumsy but charming marine, Robby (Tory Kittles). Most interesting is the fiery relationship between Gail and Dave: Gail is not used to being on the other end of a bossy personality, and Dave’s tendency to get blind drunk causes problems for the group in an unfamiliar war-torn country. The tour in Vietnam provides challenges that the group had never anticipated, while also bringing long-simmering tensions to the fore.

Deborah Mailman truly shines as Gail, portraying a fiercely protective and caring character. She is flawed, as are all of the characters, but Mailman and a clever script develop these flaws in a way that is humanising and appealing. Mailman is only just upstaged by O’Dowd, whose clever one-liners, drunken antics and passionate speeches make his character central to the dynamics of the story. The chemistry between Mailman and O’Dowd is perfect: not too obvious, but believable and quite moving. While the two leads most definitely steal the show, Mauboy’s voice is likely to send shivers down the spines of movie-goers, and the passion behind her singing gives her character extra depth.

This film has everything that you want it to have; emotion, humour, heartbreak and of course, soul. The exploration of Kay’s story is especially moving, and provides important context to the personal stories of the girls. The use of archival footage, which seems to have become a trend in Australian drama of late (it was used in telemovies Paper Giants and Mabo), is perhaps too sparsely used to quite fit with the rest of the movie, and doesn’t really seem necessary given that historical context is apparent in the settings and the storylines. This is a small criticism though, and the parts of The Sapphires that really matter do not warrant any disapproval. A proud moment for Australian film, this movie definitely proves the chops of our local industry, while also simply providing a picture that is a pleasure to watch.

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