BOOK WEEK. Starring: Alan Dukes, Susan Prior, Airlie Dodds, Toby Schmitz, Melanie Murphy, and Nicholas Hope. Also starring Jolene Anderson, Maya Stange, and Suzan Marie Ghaleb. Directed by Heath Davis. Rated M (Coarse language). 101 min.
This Australian dark-comedy tells the story of an overwrought school teacher, who tries to instil in his students a love of good literature, but experiences significant problems in doing so. The movie was shot in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and is based on the director’s personal experiences as a teacher. It is a dark satire of an educator at his wit’s end, and is semi-autobiographical. Heath Davis, who directed the film, is from Glenbrook, NSW.
Nicholas Cutler (Alan Dukes) plays the teacher, who was once a highly regarded novelist. When failure grips him, he experiences a series of professional disappointments, retreats into alcoholism, and thinks that a wayward lifestyle will provide him with an escape from his miseries. He struggles to survive, even when his publisher (Toby Schmitz) gives him a second chance. He is known to be the kind of teacher “who doesn’t show up for people”, and is a terrible role-model.
Pursuing his private version of a path to self-recovery, Cutler teaches at a working-class high school in the Blue Mountains. His students are addicted to their smart phones and are not receptive at all to his efforts. They don’t like him, and he would prefer to be somewhere else than in a school with students he can’t enthuse. He doesn’t fully realise that he does a great deal to antagonise them.
“Book Week” at Cutler’s school (which gives the film its title) occurs once every year, and, when that time comes, students dress up as their favourite characters from books they have read or heard about. To do what is expected of him in the circumstances, Cutler borrows from a piece of writing that he put pen to in the past, that he is now revising because his publisher wants last minute changes before they will accept his book. He promises to be on his best behaviour for his publisher, which is a promise he can’t, and doesn’t keep. He drunkenly misbehaves, and when he thinks life might be looking up for him, he finds out that his novel is going to be passed over in favour of the writing of a precocious student, who is in his class. Rose Riley plays Melanie Murphy, the student who wins a writing prize at his school, and whose work is chosen over his.
On the edge of a comeback, the tide of life’s events turns to make him an unwilling victim once more. When he faces failure again, he knows he has to re-evaluate what is important in his life. Nick Cutler is an unlikeable character who finds it difficult to grasp success; his personality is negatively perceived by others; and he is self-destructive. Few people accept him for the person he is, and he needs to change. Susan Prior plays Cutler’s head teacher who tells him that she is expecting his child; Airlie Dodds is a prac-teacher he has a drunken tryst with, and who he has reluctantly agreed to supervise; and Nicholas Hope plays his disapproving father, Ken. In his self-evaluation, Cutler discovers what he must do to set things right, and does it.
The movie touches on a range of complex topics, including alcoholism, self-disparagement, and fading ambition. It further examines literacy, social media, and draws valuable insights about the distractions heaped on Society in the digital age. A major appeal is that the film has an all-Australian look. The Blue Mountains provide loads of atmosphere, and location shots affectionately feature the towns of Lithgow, Blackheath, Wentworth Falls, and Leura.
This is a completely home-grown product, with moments of comic force. Heath Davis thoughtfully directs, and the mood of the film fluctuates interestingly between comedy and dark drama. Alan Dukes takes the part of Nicholas Cutler energetically and in full throttle, and the film’s script is acerbically sharp. Chapter headings from famous authors’ books appear throughout the film for each of the days of “Book Week” which cite the philosophy of the different authors’ on writing good literature - thus giving the film a sophisticated, literary touch. Overall, this is a movie that delivers a fully home-grown product with distinctive style.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Bonsai Films Pty Ltd
November 1st., 2018