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  Petersen A Brain, Two Fists And An Attitude
Year: 1974
Director: Tim Burstall
Stars: Jack Thompson, Jacki Weaver, Wendy Hughes, Belinda Gilbin, Arthur Dignam, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, Helen Morse, John Ewart, David Phillips, Christine Amor, Sandra McGregor, Joey Hohenfels, Amanda Hunt, George Mallaby, Anne Scott-Pendlebury, Dina Mann
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Sex, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tony Petersen (Jack Thompson) is good with his hands, being an electrician and all, but he has found life unsatisfying for over a decade of his working life and now as he is in his thirties he goes to university in Melbourne to better himself and find out what he's been missing in the education he feels he never had. He is married to Susie (Jacki Weaver) who is the mother of their two girls, but is his straining for a more intellectual world driving a wedge between him and his wife, or is it a more basic fact that he likes to sleep around, and the campus existence offers a perfect opportunity for that? Currently Petersen is having an affair with one of his tutors, Dr Patricia Kent (Wendy Hughes), but may live to regret it...

This wasn't the first Australian movie to feature nudity and sex scenes as a way of propelling its story forward, not to mention offering an attention-grabbing point of interest to contemporary audiences to set the box office tills ringing, but it was one of the highest profile. It was no coincidence it arrived hot on the heels of the likes of Stork and Alvin Purple, which were similarly sex-obsessed but played that largely for laughs, because this was made by many of the same people, including director Tim Burstall, an Englishman who had emigrated Down Under and revitalised his new home's film industry as a result. He did rather paint himself into a corner with these works, but his influence was undeniable.

Another aspect which Aussie audiences would be grateful for, particularly in this case, was the boost Burstall offered some of their soon-to-be favourite stars. Jack Thompson had been working as an actor for a few years when his role as Petersen launched him to success and he never looked back, you won't be surprised should you sample his performance here as Tony is not exactly likeable, but he is a compelling figure, stuck with a foot in two different classes. If the script by David Williamson, who had spent the previous decade revolutionising Australian theatre, was more rough and ready than keen and incisive, you could appreciate what he was trying to say even if he was implementing something of a blunt instrument to put it across.

Though as blunt instruments went Thompson was charismatic enough to keep you watching in spite of how he behaves, both an encapsulation of unpretentious Aussie manhood and an antihero whose actions have you questioning that same status: the scene where he sees off Hell's Angels from a polite birthday party is absurdly heavy-handed in its class message. Two actresses who would go on to great acclaim were valuable in support, as Weaver, whose breakthrough had been in Burstall's Stork three years earlier, enjoyed a rich career both at home and abroad, netting an Oscar nomination in the process, and Hughes, playing her character's apparent opposite in terms of standing and education, would become possibly the most respected Australian actress of her day until Cate Blanchett happened along and took that crown. It was testament to these two that they managed depth of personality in roles that could have been strictly cardboard.

That said, even taking into account the mood of social liberation moving through the nation, there are elements here which strained credibility, none more than the sequence where to protest an arrest which represents sexual hypocrisy to the mostly female class Petersen attends, they stage a public sex act in the university grounds which of course he gets roped into participating in. It's a mark of how difficult this is to believe that the filming was interrupted by an actual protest of the female students who deemed this sexist rubbish, and you can kind of see their point when none of it is very sure whether they're playing this for laughs or not. Actually, there is an uncertainty of tone to much of how this unfolds, as if the team hadn't quite left the self-spoofery of their comedies behind only now they wished to be very serious indeed, so one scene late on where Petersen becomes a rapist is followed by a comedy drunk act, though a comeuppance of sorts does close that section. That so many identified with his class worries at the time is perhaps concerning. Music by Peter Best.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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