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Review: The Outlaw Michael Howe is the tale of a wild colonial boy

Graeme Blundell, The Australian, 29 November, 2013

Historians still debate the so-called convict legacy of those who settled this country, those "lowest slaves of profligacy, inebriation, violence and lust", as that astute observer and British author Alexander Harris called them in 1847, but there were heroes among them too.

English convict and former soldier Michael Howe was one, a notorious bushranger who brought the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land to the brink of civil war in 1814.

His story is the subject of actor Brendan Cowell's directorial debut in The Outlaw Michael Howe. It's an absorbing saga dramatising the way the savagery of the lash brutalised not only convicts but also officers, officials, settlers and labourers.

Driven by an unquenchable hatred towards those he once served, Howe (Damon Herriman) and a young Aboriginal girl, Black Mary (Rarriwuy Hick) turn a desperate band of convicts and deserters into a fearsome guerilla army and lead them in open rebellion against the brutal, corrupt establishment.

In drunken desperation, the governor (Darren Gilshenan) sends every man at his disposal to hunt down the self-styled "Lieutenant-Governor of the Woods".

But Howe forges an unlikely relationship with the wife of the wealthiest settler in the colony, former convict Maria Lord (Mirrah Foulkes). Together they plot to throw down the government and assume control of the entire colony.

In some ways Cowell, who writes as well as directs, gives us a Sergio Leone-style western with its vision of a treacherous, corrupt and dark world that seems to deserve whatever violence can be wreaked on it. "Every man here has known the lash, with masters over us; we have felt, all of us, the shame of their manacles, their irons, as they strike upon our naked backs, again and again and again," Howe says to his troops in the primeval forest surrounding the tiny colony. "Well, I say to those masters, 'Beware, beware of what you have awoken, beware of the risen people', for we shall take what they will not give."

It's a vivid portrait of a fallen world that recalls Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and its story of the (historically truthful) Glanton Gang, which worked the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s and murdered Native Americans for their scalps.

"The truth about the world is that anything is possible," writes McCarthy. "Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning."

Cowell's dialogue is hardly as baroque, or as interesting, but his ambitious treatment also summons up the shadows of Dante and Melville (and a touch of Game of Thrones), with vivid set pieces of mountain blazes, storms and terrible violence set against scenes of the utmost pastoral beauty. Fires rage calamitously in the background to this epic drama, providing a constant threat of menace, plotting the journey of Howe's gang as they move to secure Van Diemen's Land.

Roger Mason's brilliant soundtrack adds to the mysticism and surrealism, a vibrant, eclectic fusion of old colonial melodies, hymns and fiddles mixed with contemporary Australian rock and soul. It's the sound of violence but also of the beauty of that transcendent landscape.

In many ways, Howe is a neglected symbol of those first days when Australia lived under the dark shadow of the convict system, and the rule of the whip and stocks. He was a renegade hero in this formative period in the development of social and national patterns; a ruthless, unscrupulous, violent man-against-man struggle.

"This was society stripped to its essentials of the powerful and powerless - jailer and jailed - and proved a fertile bed for the tradition that righted the wrongs, the vicarious revenge of the weak against the strong," says producer Nial Fulton.

Beautifully filmed by Simon Harding on location in Tasmania's central highlands, Cowell's film is a visually stylised assault on colonisation and invasion, a kind of terrible dreamscape that carries us along, sometimes trickling and sometimes roaring. It doesn't always work.

The period language is not continuously persuasive, though Howe's speeches - presumably taken from his kangaroo-skin diaries in which he committed his forebodings, written it is said in blood - have a striking sense of authenticity.

And the colonial overlords are largely stilted in performance, the actors uncomfortable with their cliched words and some ungainly staging in the small period interiors. Accents, too, come and go with alarming frequency, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, sometimes in the same sentence.

Some performances burst out of credibility, especially Gilshenan's Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey, a rowdy, fornicating Falstaffian turn that lacks menace and threat. But Herriman is a fine outlaw, played with the right kind of gritted-teeth stoicism, and Rarriwuy Hick's Black Mary is a wonderfully commanding performance, her voice alternately silky and hatchet-sharp.

The Outlaw Michael Howe, Sunday, 8.30pm, ABC1

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