CARGO. Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, Bruce R Carter, Natasha Wanganeen, Simone Landers, David Gulpilil. Directed by Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling. 104 minutes. Not yet rated.

‘Cargo’ relies heavily on Martin Freeman. As Andy, Freeman spends swathes of the film acting across from just a baby, as secondary characters flit in and out. The film follows Andy’s personal Odyssey of sorts, an imposing quest with a concrete objective, but one with a twist – he knows that he’s not going to make it. If a zombie survival thriller without the possibility of survival sounds like your cup of tea, then you’re in luck. This sensitive and polished debut feature from filmmakers Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling aims for both emotional depth and mounting dread, and does an admirable job on both fronts.

Andy and his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), are making their way across the Australian Outback to a military outpost. The country has been beset by a terrible virus, which zombifies its victims after about 48 hours (thanks to Larry Van Duynhoven’s ghastly and highly tactile prosthetics). With them is their infant daughter, Rosie, whose existence gives the pair both hope and crushing responsibility. When an accident leads to Kay’s death and Andy’s infection, an inexorable countdown begins, as Andy must battle through his worsening illness to see Rosie safely delivered to a new home.

Plenty of filmmakers have attempted to give the zombie genre a good kick over the years. There have been horror comedies like ‘Shaun of the Dead’, experimental indies like ‘Pontypool’, and gonzo action flicks like ‘Wyrmwood’ (all of which are recommended for aficionados of the undead). ‘Cargo’ brings its own twist to the category, focusing on an intimate family story played out against its apocalyptic backdrop. There are no show-stopping set pieces or sequences of heart-stopping horror, but the innate emotional power of the story’s familial bonds and the acute vulnerability of a baby in this zombie-ridden world don’t need elaborate trappings to work.

Andy’s odyssey takes him through encounters tinged with kindness, such as his chance meeting with former school teacher Etta (Kris McQuade), and darkness, including an uneasy night spent with gas pipeline worker Vic (Anthony Hayes). While they contribute to the depth of Andy’s ordeal, they can’t help but feel like they’re distracting from the potent story at its core. Given the strength of the film’s premise, there needn’t be interludes in which Rosie’s safety and her bond with her father become almost an afterthought.

That said, there is one powerful relationship that Andy forms that is integral to the narrative. Throughout his journey, Andy crosses paths with Thoomi (Simone Landers, solid in her debut), a young Indigenous girl who is trying to save her infected father with the help of a tribal Cleverman (David Gulpilil, as upright as ever). As Andy realises that Thoomi may hold the key to his daughter’s salvation, they form an emotional bond fuelled by necessity and compassion. Ramke, who adapted the screenplay from her and Howling’s 2013 Tropfest film of the same name, cleverly expands their original short by doubling down on the family stakes, while also organically introducing significant Indigenous Australian elements. As Indigenous groups return to their ancestral lands to live in “the old ways”, cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson captures gorgeous visuals through the smoke and flames of cleansing rituals. The Australian landscape also makes for an imposing setting, its natural beauty at odds with the challenges that its vastness represents to Andy. Further strong work roots the story in its Australian setting, such as the score’s clever integration of native instrumentation, particularly in its wooden percussion.

As mentioned, the success of ‘Cargo’ rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading man. Thanks to his roles in the immensely popular ‘Sherlock’ and ‘The Hobbit’ franchises, Freeman has become a household name over the last decade. If his success can be attributed to one thing, it would be the intensely relatable humanity with which he imbues his characters. Freeman can convey more with silent expressions and carefully deployed changes in breathing than others can manage in an entire monologue. He is utterly human, perfectly calibrated to invoke viewers’ empathy. This style works wonders for Andy’s highly sympathetic predicament, and he is never short of watchable.

Thanks to a strong lead performance and an ambitious scope, ‘Cargo’ is a satisfying, homegrown spin on a well-worn genre path. While Freeman’s talent has been well-documented for some time, it also announces Ramke and Howling as filmmakers to watch.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out May 17.

Umbrella Entertainment.

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