The Kerrigans are an ordinary Australian family and very proud of their house, which is located directly next to the runways of the Melbourne airport. But the many planes thundering over their heads every day do not disturb them in the least - quite the contrary, because the Kerrigans are thrilled about the unique location of their beloved home. But one day they are utterly shocked when they are told that they have to give up their house because of an airport expansion. In spite being offered a generous compensation, Darryl Kerrigan, together with his whole family and their few neighbours, vows to fight the airport company, because he is not giving up his castle so easily...
The story of The Castle could have been a tearful drama if it would have been filmed, for example, as a typical German television movie. But it is one of the finest examples of Australian cinema which transforms the potential drama into a warm-hearted, original comedy about the fight of a family for their home.
Responsible for this little jewel of the movie was the Working Dog team, consisting of Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch. Since the end of the 1980s, the four multi-talents had become for Australian television what Monty Python had been in England twenty years previously - a group of enthusiastic comic actors and writers, who stormed the screens with their very unique humour. With parodies like Late Show, Frontline, Funky Squad and The Panel the four comedians were an integral part of Australian television and today still are. But the team had only twice ventured from the small screen into the cinemas: once with The Dish, a brilliant comedy about the events of the first moon landing at an Australian radio telescope, and before with their first movie The Castle, which in contrast to its successor only became famous in its own country.
Written in two weeks and shot with minimal effort in only eleven days, The Castle was an archetypal low- to no-budget production, but that had not harmed the film at all and is actually part of its unique charm. There are actually two movies in The Castle: an affectionate portrait of an Australian middle-class family and the fight of the common people against big corporations. Dale, the youngest son of the Kerrigans, narrates the story and proudly introduces his parents and siblings - it is not a perfect family, but a happy one, which is almost unheard of in today's movie world full of neuroses, psychoses and large collections of skeletons in the closet.
Darryl Kerrigan and his family may be simple, low-brow and unpretentious, but they are not dumb by a long shot. In their own special way the Kerrigans are very intelligent people and real human beings to whom the most basic things matter. "It's not just a house, it's a home!" says Darryl, who cannot imagine that the airport company is allowed to take their home away. For him and his family their house is not only real estate, but a part of their life which cannot be substituted by a load of money. The Kerrigans are displayed as a typical working class family, but not in a derogatory way. If The Castle has a message, it only can be: "Look at the Kerrigans, why can't you be as happy as them?"
The Kerrigan's fight for their house is only one part of the movie, because the Working Dog team had also concentrated on showing the macrocosm of the family to the audience. The Castle is neither a reality show, a documentary or a family drama - just a look at a typical, if a little eccentric Australian working class family. To compare The Castle with American sitcoms like Married with Children or European concoctions like Flodder would be an insult to the filmmakers.
The script, co-written by the whole team of Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch, is full of wonderful ideas and a lot of humour, but at the same time not overloaded. The story is strongly structured, no parts of the plot leave the impression of being superfluous, even if the narration sometimes deviates a little bit at the beginning of the movie. With its many subplots, The Castle sometimes feels like a whole television series condensed into ninety minutes. But the movie never feels rushed, the tightness of the story has the advantage of making it really intense and believable. The pacing is very carefully balanced and it is remarkable how much plot the filmmakers were able to squeeze into such a short movie.
The dialogue is very natural and unforced, taking care to reproduce a realistic jargon for the Kerrigans and their friends. A couple of f-words and some other strong language are included, but nevertheless the script never seems vulgar - mostly, the Kerrigans are actually speaking a rather civilized, if colloquial Australian English. The dialogue is also remarkable because it coined a few, but wonderfully clever catchphrases, which could only have come from the minds of experienced comedy writers as the Working Dog team. The movie is, however, not completely littered with jokes - while The Castle is a comedy at heart, humour is actually used very carefully. Much of it comes from the heartfelt portrayal of the Kerrigans, which has much fun in developing the very realistic characters over the course of the story. In the end, it is a real feel-good-movie, albeit with some dramatic, thoughtful and even sad moments.
The script of The Castle is half the movie, the other half are the wonderful actors. The filmmakers had assembled a cast exclusively from Australia, all of them down to the last tiny character playing their roles absolutely brilliantly. For Darryl Kerrigan the Working Dog team had the fortune to get the very busy film and television actor Michael Caton, whose career had already spanned 20 years at the time The Castle was made. He played the head of the family with a disarming honesty and portrayed the typical middle-class man from the street in a completely natural and casual way. Caton's Darryl Kerrigan could have been a beer-swilling macho, but he is in fact a wonderful, loving head of the family, who has the utmost respect for his wife, children and neighbours - but not for the people who want to take his home.
For the smaller, but equally important role of Sal Kerrigan, Darryls wife, the filmmakers were able to find Anne Tenny, a likewise experienced and quite well-known actress. Although the roles in the Kerrigan family are fairly conservative, Sal is far away from just being a simple hard-working mother with nothing to say - instead she is portrayed as very active, understanding and determined, providing the conscience and common sense of the clan. The actress took this approach to heart and played her role in a brilliant way not as a dumb blonde, but as very down-to-earth woman who is the real brains of the whole family.
The secret lead character of the movie is Dale, the youngest son of the Kerrigans, who narrates the movie with a mostly humorous, but also sometimes serious voiceover, keeping the many different parts of the story glued together. He was played by the young and then still almost unknown Stephen Curry, for whom The Castle was the start of a long and still ongoing career in Australian television and cinema. With his youthful and honest way, he gives the audience a proud inside view of the Kerrigan family and together with Sophie Lee as Dale's sister Tracey and Anthony Simcoe and Wayne Hope as his brothers Steve and Wayne, he is the backbone of the whole cast. While all of the actors have become successful after The Castle, there is also one surprise appearance by a then completely unknown Eric Bana as Tracey's husband Con, who makes only a few small appearances.
The other smaller roles have also been cast magnificently. Tiriel Mora had already been a regular on Working Dog's news comedy show Frontline and played the hapless lawyer Dennis Denuto in a wonderfully direct and brilliantly funny way. A great surprise is also Charles "Bud" Tingwell, and old acquaintance of the filmmakers, who portrays the generous veteran lawyer Lawrence Hammill. In Europe, the actor is more known as Inspector Craddock in the Miss Marple movies with Margaret Rutherford filmed in the early 1960s, but here, more than three and a half decades later, he still has the same charm and is much more than just a simple grandfather figure. He was in his mid-70s when The Castle was made, but he remained active in Australian cinema and television until his death in 2009.
Although the movie must have been made under enormous time pressure, the actors have visible fun in front of the camera. Some of them have later said that at most only two takes of each scene were filmed with limited rehearsals, but the very disciplined direction of Rob Sitch made this possible in the first place. The actors work with each other like a well-oiled machine and have a completely natural timing. With their very natural appearances all the actors are easily wining the sympathy of the audience, who is instantly able identify with this somewhat strange, but very likeable family.
The Castle is also fascinating because of its filmic simplicity - it is not exactly the guerilla-style filmmaking of Kevin Smith's Clerks, but the relaxed atmosphere is a direct result of shooting only on location without a studio. There are no special-effects and no fancy camera moves, although the 16mm photography of Miriana Marusic is very professional and makes the most of a movie which is basically a filmed stage play. The production may be ultra low-budget, but the long-time television experience of the Working Dog team has made sure that it never really shows. The post production, especially the editing process and the perfect choice of music, a wonderful mix of pop songs and an orchestral score provided by Edmund Choi and Craig Harnath, delivers an outstanding and fully unique style.
Like its successor The Dish, The Castle is a very remarkable little movie defining the comedy genre in a completely new way - it is a refreshing change from the usual mindless one-laugh-a-minute efforts and completely goes against every Australian chliché. For the American and even European mass audiences a movie like this proved to be largely uninteresting, but in Australia The Castle became a huge success when it opened in cinemas in spring 1997. The movie was made for much less than a million Australian dollars, but it took in more than ten times as much at the boxoffice - the actors and filmmakers said that they were sure that their movie was good, but nobody had expected such a huge success.
Two years later, Miramax had acquired the US rights for a reported sum of six million dollars and brought the movie to American cinemas. Even with some small changes in the dialogue and some slight music substitutions, the movie simply failed to make much of an impression in the USA, as it did in England even before the American cinema debut. But most Critics were absolutely delighted with this refreshing comedy and while there have been some other cinema releases all over Europe, the humour proved so indigenous that only real film connoisseurs were able to appreciate the uniqueness and the special charm of The Castle. Today, more than fifteen years after its making, the movie is still a little masterpiece and has not lost any of its relevancy.
To sum it up with a quote from the script: It's the vibe!
The Castle has a very checkered history on home video. The movie first became available on DVD in 1999 not in Australia, but in the USA courtesy of Miramax, who pressed their slightly altered version on disc shortly after the failed cinema debut. It took five more years for an Australian DVD to appear after an earlier VHS release, but it only contained a terrible fullframe video master, which was only corrected in 2008 with a new widescreen edition, improving even the older Miramax release. In 2011 The Castle was also released by Paramount in England and for the 15th anniversary even a Blu-Ray came out in Australia. None of these releases contain any bonus materials save for a trailer on the US release, because the filmmakers have always refused to explain their movie, saying that it should stand for itself.
The DVD reviewed in this article is the American release from Miramax, which I had bought back when it was the best choice - it actually had been out of print for a couple of years, but then was suddenly available again and now is again out of print - there is, however, a new version from Lionsgate available from Amazon.com, which seems to be identical to this disc, but is manufactured on demand as a DVD-R.
This Miramax release contains the slightly modified americanised version, but the differences are actually negligible and do not harm the movie at all. Rumours that some scenes have been left out or re-cut are no more than that - the runtime is actually identical to the Australian release given the PAL/NTSC-difference. While the technical quality is not the best partly due to the production circumstances, it is certainly watchable - but the newer Australian or British releases might be the better versions today.