Revisiting the Nineteenth-Century Australian Gothic: Nick Cave’s The Proposition

Posted by Sondeep Kandola on May 16, 2008 in Dr Sondeep Kandola, Guest Blog tagged with

Although dubbed an Australian Western by its creators, it seems to me that the 2006 film The Proposition (2006) written by Nick Cave and directed by long-term Cave collaborator John Hillcoat draws heavily on the tropes of the Australian (literary) Gothic – deracination, isolation, entrapment, dislocation and the uncanny – in a really haunting way to forge its unrelentingly violent and poignantly ethereal vision of the lawless Australian outback of the 1880s. To recap, the film pits an English police captain, Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone gives a strikingly restrained performance here) against three Irish bushrangers, the Burns brothers (Arthur, Charley and Mikey) and sees Stanley, in his attempt to ‘civilise’ this ‘beleaguered land’ offer Charley the deadly pact of either executing his elder brother Arthur, a sadistic murderer–poet figure, or see his younger brother, the innocent Mikey, executed on Christmas day. What follows is a brutal and violent journey into the harsh and punishing landscapes of Northern Queensland in which the triangulation of the British administration, the Irish bushrangers and a native aboriginal population – aligned with and against both–sharply delineates the horrific racialism that shaped Australia in the nineteenth century. The casual and grotesque racism of the English towards the aboriginal people and the Irish alike is certainly uncomfortable watching and serves to undermine the civilising discourses of the English imperial project that a character such as Captain Stanley initially espouses. Traditionally silenced and demonised by the Australian Gothic – see, for example, Charles Harpur’s 1853 poem ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ – the aboriginals of this film form an eerie chorus that conversely demonises European evil in the stories that they tell of Arthur Burns’s nightly transformations into a ‘dog–man’. Not only does the film revisit the tropes of the nineteenth-century Australian Gothic but it also deploys and contests the brooding psychological intensity of the European Gothic in a startlingly uncanny fashion.  Thus, Arthur Burns emerges as both a murdering villain and a Hibernian antihero in the school of Charles Maturin and Stanley’s wife, Martha, is very much a Radcliffean heroine transplanted to Australia’s unforgiving landscape

 Indeed, Martha’s attempts to domesticate her surroundings are also a strong vehicle for the uncanny because her attempts to impose English gentility in her outpost home literally see the homely (‘heimlich’) defeated by the unhomely (‘unheimlich’).  Haunted by lingering dreams of the rape and murder of her friend and the sadistic abortion of the child growing inside her womb, the ethereal Martha is clearly an abjected figure traumatised by living in a patriarchal society that simultaneously seeks to protect and censor her. And yet unlike the European Gothic tradition there is nothing redemptive in innocence abused as both Martha’s rape and the death of the innocent Mikey resonate beyond the end of the film in a painfully bleak way. Also striking is the mise-en-scène of the film in which the Gothic’s travail in the night is rejected in favour of a glaring desert landscape where no crime can be hidden from the harsh and punitive Australian sun.

Anybody familiar with Cave’s music will recognise that his trademark obsessions with death, murder and redemption have undergone a double transposition in this film via the American Western back to a key moment in the foundation of his mother country. And perhaps it is his own expatriate status (he now lives in Hove) that has finally allowed Cave to broach difficult questions about Australia’s history, the legacies of which are still being played out to this day. In the May 2007 number of the journal Gothic Studies, critic Emma McEvoy bemoaned what she believed to be the recent demise of Nick Cave’s Gothic sensibility and yet I would argue that The Proposition reveals that it has not disappeared for Cave but has simply resituated itself, as the genre seems insistently to do, in the past.

The trailer:

Tiny URL for this post: