Starring: Bryan Brown, Ernie Dingo, Angie Milliken, Aaron Pederson
Director/Writer: Nick Parsons
Distributor: Roadshow Entertainment
Following hot on the heels of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Nicholas Parsons’ Dead Heart provided a dramatic examination of the ramifications of enforcing white fella law in black fella country. One of the main findings of the Commission was that many indigenous people were locked up because of public drunkenness. And so it is with the character of Danny. When he is found hanging from his neck in a bleak cell at the remote, fictional community of Wala Wala, his father demands payback. The local cop Ray (Bryan Brown) demurs and allows his side kick Billy to take the blows; two spear wounds through the thigh. But when the man who brought the grog into the community in the first place makes love to a married white woman on a sacred men’s initiation site, the payback is much more severe, and Ray, under threat of a transfer, is driven to investigate the crime by the books.
Angie Milliken gives a strong and sexy performance as Katie, the wife of a rather staid community teacher, who is understandably seduced by the charismatic Tony (Aaron Pederson) and then tormented by the consequences. Juxtaposing their affair are the efforts of Dave (Ernie Dingo), the aboriginal priest who conducts sermons in a corrugated iron church and chants hymns with the converted by night. But no amount of prayer will ever fix the transgression that has taken place and nor, much to Ray’s frustration, will any white man’s law.
Taking his cue from a real life story, writer Nick Parson’s initially had his piece mounted as a stage play in 1993, first by NIDA and then in a co-production by Sydney’s Belvoir St. Theatre and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. He later developed the screen adaptation and gave it to Brown who connected with the material so strongly that he also came on board as producer, a role that saw him feature in a TV commercial for the Northern Territory’s ‘Save Water’ campaign in return for a herd of camels that appear briefly in film. As he says in an interview recorded to coincide with Dead Heart’s release, black and white Australia couldn’t be more different and solving the problems of race relations is difficult; “We’ll be working on it for the rest of our lives,” he says, “but as long as we’re trying, that’s the most important thing.”