The Oyster Farmer


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Current Rating 8.08/10 | 12 Votes

Produced by Anthony Buckley

Cast: Alex O’Lachlan, Jim Norton, Diana Glenn, David Field, Kerry Armstrong, Claudia Harrison, Alan Cinis, Jack Thompson


Between the making of this beautiful film and its release, an unexpected, calamitous misfortune has befallen the people and devastated the local industry comprising the subject of the story. The oyster farming region of the Hawkesbury River, an hour north of Sydney, has this year been hit by a parasite which is killing the famous, prized Sydney rock oysters and destroying an industry which has existed since the 1870s. It makes this film a timely record of a way of life which may well be lost unless a solution is found. The Oyster Farmer makes this news hit home because the stories, the people portrayed and their river-based lifestyle, so oriented around the tides and the daily tending of oyster-beds, are made so affectionately real.


As the film opens the character of the river is immediately apparent. From the mudflats where scores of crabs scuttle at low tide, to the silvered water and thick fog settling suddenly, to the oyster-farmer spraying his racks of oysters with water as the sun shines through – this is a different world to where these choice oysters will end up, on the plates of five-star diners in Sydney, Tokyo, London or New York.


In the early morning a girl and a blue heeler cattle dog named Smokey stand on a jetty. A ‘tinny’ (an aluminium dinghy, in these parts) approaches with a young man in it and she sticks out her thumb. She’s going to the caravan park, and though he’s late and his boss Brownie (David Field) will be angry, he gives her a ride. She’s Pearl (Diana Glenn) and he’s ‘the new bloke’ Jack Flange (Alex O’Lachlan). The connection between them is instantly promising though a little reserved. He’s a city fella, new to the river, though not afraid of hard work. She’s grown up on the river, though with a fetish for expensive, handmade shoes she cannot afford. For a girl who must spend a deal of time on boats, rough-planked jetties, mudflats and river banks strewn with rocks and oyster shells, the kinds of shoes she loves are as appropriate as sequinned stilts in quicksand, but she’s following her own drum.  


It’s an example of what everyone does in this film. It’s about finding their own path. There’s cooperation and teamwork. There’s attempted coercion, disapproval, jealousy and suspicion. Ultimately what wins is respect and acceptance, and by the end the characters have won that from us too, along with a few chuckles.


Jack, meantime, visits his sister Nikki (Claudia Harrison), convalescing in a nearby private hospital after a car accident, until the insurance money runs out, when she will have to leave. Jack promises he will get the money she needs and hatches a daring plan to steal money from an armoured truck at the Sydney Fish Market using a frozen lobster in a dangerous, innovative and untraceable way and an equally inventive edible balaclava. Mailing the money to himself on the Hawkesbury, he seems to pull it off, then haunts the Post Office asking for his package in rather too obvious a manner, considering the sharpness of the locals and the police around.


The people on the river are a tight-knit community. An interweaving plot involves Jack’s boss Brownie, separated from his wife Trish (the warm, brilliant Kerry Armstrong, Lantana), a gifted oyster farmer herself, and Mumbles (Jim Norton) his widowed dad, an outspoken, interfering Irishman with a dubious past who married an oyster woman 40 years ago, took her name and stayed on. Trish has taken a neighbouring oyster farmer’s lease and is enjoying her independence and her solo success, keeping Brownie at bay with what he believes is a terrifying combination – her sexual allure and emotional manipulation. Except that he says it in a far more salty way. They share the parenting of their son Heath (Brady Kitchingham).


Jack is attracted to the scrumptious Trish. He’s also attracted to the sultry Pearl, but mistakenly thinks Pearl is scandalously involved with a very rough and aggressive fellow called Slug (Alan Cinis), who is the local sewage collector and incidentally Pearl’s real father. Jack also suspects Slug of having stolen his missing package after the postmaster had a heart attack and dropped a bundle of mail off a jetty into someone’s boat. No-one has owned up. Jack suspects everyone. Slug has a new motor and Pearl has more new irresistibly impractical shoes. Jack has all kinds of suspicions, all of them wrong. He’s not the only one making assumptions. “Everyone’s favourite pastime ‘round ‘ere,” Slug fumes, “is jumpin’ to conclusions.”


The Sydney rock oyster is a temperamental species. Farmers tend them daily for four years to bring them to maturity at just the right time. Interestingly, they change sex a number of times during their life cycle, spawning as males and returning to female. If they spawn too early they might lose prime condition for a few weeks, and timing for optimum marketing is lost.


Since Trish left Brownie, his oysters all spawn too early. In what is perhaps an intriguing projection from their erstwhile intimate relationship, Brownie has a theory that Trish just has to look at them to stop them spawning, and enlists her overnight help to bring one batch through. He wants her secret with the oysters. What she’s always wanted, what he promised, is a bath. She also wants respect and equality and won’t settle for less. In the middle of the night, with the silent river lapping a few feet away, it’s an opportunity to reconcile their differences.


Jack and Pearl, too, sort differences au naturelle, in dappled shade on an old jetty. As the lovers, newcomers Alex O’Lachlan and Diana Glenn are charismatic and sympathetic.


One other genuine character shines in this not disagreeable community of eccentric, salty people. Skippy, played by a wild-looking Jack Thompson, is a Vietnam vet with some wise advice for Jack, living in the bush up river with a few like-minded, tattooed mates who are also vets, fighting the residual effects of Agent Orange.


The end of the film has everyone in an agreeably different place, though Jack sees it differently and is the last to realise how good he has it. Trish gets something she dearly wanted but not quite in the way she thought. Through Mumbles’ intervention in more than one relationship – all designed to bring back harmony to his own life – confusions and conflicts are resolved, and a possible future stint in jail is prevented in a way that will quite possibly stun you.


Writer/director Anna Reeves has shown us a community and a way of life the continued existence of which is fragile, in light of the current QX disease plaguing the Sydney rock oyster. More’s the pity. There’s deep respect and affinity for these resilient and resourceful riverfolk shown in this original, funny and gentle film.


© Avril Carruthers                                  22nd June 2005




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