Writer: Ben Elton
Producers: Sue Taylor, Michael Wrenn
Starring: Rebecca Breeds, Robert Sheehan, Michael Caton, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman, John Waters, Kelton Pell, Jacqueline McKenzie, Peter Rowsthorn.
One of the characters in the new Australian romantic comedy Three Summers says at one stage that the annual Western Australia festival “Westival” is “a camping holiday but with folk music – what’s not to love?” A lot, actually.
If Ben Elton’s name hadn’t been associated with Three Summers as both writer and director, my expectations about this film would have been far different. I’m a huge fan of Elton’s satirical British comedy TV shows Black Adder and Upstart Crow, both of which are memorable for their witty, biting dialogue and humour, their entertaining characters and absurd situations. Elton is also a novelist and playwright whose work is often labelled political, so I assumed this film would explore political issues but in a satirical way.
To be fair, setting this romantic comedy over three successive summers during a fictitious folk music festival (based on the real Fairbridge festival in Pinjarra WA, which Elton and his Australian wife attend each year) seems like a good idea. The setting provides scope for diverse characters and situations to explore important national issues, including the refugee/asylum seeker debate and Aboriginal reconciliation. These issues are covered, but in such a heavy handed, pedestrian and preaching way that you feel like you’re being lectured.
The main storyline focuses on two young musicians (Rebecca Breeds as the spirited fiddler and Robert Sheehan as the tech-obsessed loner) who are attracted to each other but clash owing to differences in opinion and lifestyle, and who meet over three successive summers.
Supporting characters are portrayed with broad strokes for easy identification, being types rather than unique individuals as they work their way through predictable situations and misunderstandings that wouldn’t be out of place in 1970s Summer Bay or one of those dreadful 1950s British comedies. There is no sense of any of them, aside from the heroine, having a life beyond the annual festival. There is one genuinely amusing running gag involving the Theremin, and scenes with an intimidating female security guard played by Kate Box, which hint at the kind of absurdist humour lacking from the rest of this film.
Michael Caton’s character, a grumpy widowed grandfather who likes Morris dancing, typifies the bigoted Aussie bloke who had it tough growing up and resents all those “foreigners” who are trying to muscle their way in. His eventual epiphany lacks conviction after a lifetime of having a different head set, but the film naively wants us to see how it’s possible for anyone with a blinkered view to change. The asylum seekers are portrayed as innocent victims lacking any individual character traits, while the indigenous dance troop of wise old fella (Kelton Pell) and rebellious young lads seems to rely mainly on types rather than real people.
It is an odd film, given Elton’s intention to explore what it is like to be Australian, and how we all apparently struggle with this. While trying to be a comedy with a serious underlying message, it comes across as a kind of episodic Love Boat on land, with different family group dynamics and couples either working through differences or being caught in a lifestyle/culture time loop.
The folk rock concert scenes featuring the heroine and her father (John Waters) with their band “The WArrikins” have an energy that is absent from the rest of the film. Three Summers isn’t a bad film, just mediocre and bereft of the satirical or absurdist edge that Elton could have brought to it.