Three Summers at MIFF

Ben Elton’s latest film wows audiences in Australia, but will it hit the spot elsewhere?

by James Bartlett

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has just come to an end. It featured hundreds of features and shorts over the 17 days, and this year’s theme was to “explore new worlds,” which saw matters of social justice, empathy and connection examined in many of the stories seen on screen – extremely apposite in an Australia that’s currently wrestling with marriage equality and the ever-present issue of Aboriginal rights.

For audiences in the UK at least, perhaps the most notable screening at MIFF was the latest effort from Ben Elton, the comedian/author much-beloved for his co-writing work on “Blackadder” and “The Young Ones,” as well as his 80s and 90s comedy shows.

Successful novels followed too, though his film work has been less than stellar; Maybe Baby was a famous flop despite the presence of “’Adder” chum Hugh Laurie, Phantom of the Opera follow-up Love Never Dies pretty much bombed too, and, “The Thin Blue Line” aside, a couple of UK television series also crashed and burned.

But he also wrote the Queen musical We Will Rock You and all was forgiven – though arguably that wasn’t a difficult target to hit, since Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor’s music did most of the work.

In more recent years Elton has notably lived more or less full-time in Australia after meeting and marrying his then-bass player wife during a trip he first made with Rik Mayall.

During the speech he made at the glitzy Centerpiece Gala Screening he said a day “never goes by” when he doesn’t think about Mayall, his regular comedy compatriot, and he also spoke movingly about his love for Down Under, and how much his latest film meant to him.

Getting plenty of laughs – and even using his “little bit of politics” catchphrase – he amused the crowd before the screening, and it was clear a lot was riding on this for him, his cast and crew, and the Australian funders. Elton even mentioned how long it had been since his last film; his twins were born during Maybe Baby, and were turning 18 this very day.

An amusing and often-charming ensemble rom-com/drama that really tries hard to please, Three Summers is based around three years at the fictional Westival folk festival in Western Australia, and the summertime flirtations between Irish theremin player/dog shampooer Roland (Robert Sheehan, “Misfits”) and Irish-Australian violinist Keevey (Rebecca Breeds, “Home and Away,” “Pretty Little Liars”).

During the first year the spirited, Tinder-using Keevey comes on strong despite Roland’s snobbish attitude and an insistence that she should be doing more than regional festivals. He’s purely in it for the music, but after their first kiss he drops a real clanger, telling Keevey that the headlining “WArrikins” are a cheesy, Irish pub-rock band.

Of course, Keevey is their lead singer and fiddle player; her alcoholic dad’s even in the band too.

Alongside this annual on/off pairing there are other things happening at Westival while amusing radio DJ (Magda Szubanski) exhorts everyone to “get folked” and encourages “challenging” music.

Aboriginal leader (Kelton Pell) and his group of miscreant teenagers feel they’re there just for “authenticity,” shy teen Afghani refugee (Amay Jain) has been bought along by his new, super-sensitive adoptive parents, and fellow teenager (Adrianne Daff), whose mum is never off the phone to work and whose grouchy Morris dancer grandad (Michael Caton) definitely doesn’t welcome anyone new to “his” Australia.

There’s also two “boring” married couples who have come to the fest for years, do the same thing every year – drink copious amounts of wine – and have never actually been to any gigs.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot there to cram in: multiple protagonists and multiple issues and agendas to try and give time to – even the gay thing gets a small moment late on – but the main focus is Roland and Keevey.

In year two, Roland is now doing the chasing. He had slipped an application form to a prestigious music school under Keevey’s door last year, and though we saw her fail to make it at the audition, he doesn’t know what happened.

She still can’t forgive him for THAT comment though, and is keen to get revenge – which she does by calling him out at her gig (oh yes he comes to see the Warrkins, even if he disapproves. Well, he’s in love with the lead singer, natch).

This revelation comes out in year three, and the other storylines have developed off-screen in the intervening months too, which means that we never see the hard work and soul-searching that has gone on, something that feels like a bit of a lazy cheat when everything – as it seemingly has to – turns out all happy, with everyone now open-minded, understanding and liberated (and can you guess what happens with the two boring married couples? Wife swap!).

Some missteps – like finding out Keevey’s father seemingly had a very complex drunken moment and faked her signature rejecting the place she in fact won at the music school – and the performance by an Afghani music trio whose lead singer gives a speech about living in a refugee camp (and then turns to the side of the stage to see the cops waiting to take him and his fellow musicians right back there) seem awkward and uninspired.

There’s much here that seems very on-the-nose and just too easy/unlikely, but it’s of course hopeful, positive (and slight) stuff that just about makes it over the finish line thanks to the many expected jokes and funny moments à la Elton that made the audience at The Forum at least laugh long and loud.

As a kind of “Australia in a tent” idea it seems very much aimed at and inspired by audiences there more than anything, even if some of the ideas (immigration, racism) have universal meaning. Sheehan and Breeds work hard – and Sheehan’s physical comedy playing that strange electronic machine is a highlight – but whether it catches on anywhere else around the world remains to be seen.

Author: James Bartlett

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