I recently came to the realisation that The Castle is my favourite film of all time. I mean, sure, 10-year-old me enjoyed it when it came out twenty years ago, but its place at the top of my personal cinematic pecking order was cemented much later. This is partly due to just how deep the humour ran – it took me half a dozen viewings to pick up on the fantastic Hemingway joke in the final seconds – but also because I came to realise that the film is an amazing historical document. As a window into the social history of Australia in the 1990s, it’s unparalleled.
A huge part of the success of the film is its ability to portray and draw humour from class in a way that never felt mean or predatory. Sure, the Kerrigan family’s foibles drive much of the humour, but the audience is laughing with them, not at them. They are immensely likeable figures that transcend what might have been a cruel caricature, simply because they are so grounded themselves. There’s no pretension, no social anxiety – just a loving family that finds joy where they want to. You couldn’t be mean-spirited to them if you tried – and anyone who isn’t moved by their passion and cohesion by the film’s end needs to get their heart checked. The only citizenship test Australia needs is how often you tear up during the final half hour.
Being able to discuss class so effectively is what opens the door for The Castle to work so well as a historical text. The film is grounded in the crisis of identity that gripped (arguably still does) post-industrial Australia. What’s going to happen to Australia’s working class in this brave new world? Is Australia going to be run by and for a managerial elite – the ones who went to uni, wear suits, work for international corporations? Who’s going to balance out the bastards, for whom a slightly cheaper postal terminal was more important than the inconvenient lives of those who already lived there?
The film pivots this question of ownership and dispossession to neatly address another outstanding issue of the time: Aboriginal land rights. The experience of dispossession – and the key theme of ‘home’ transcending anything as tawdry as mere property rights – is a deliberate reflection of the indigenous experience, a connection made explicitly by Darryl Kerrigan, who finds new sympathy for Indigenous Australians through the film’s events. Other characters point to the landmark Mabo decision, just a few years old at the time, as a legal touchstone when trying to put their finger on exactly why the Kerrigan’s situation is so unjust. The suggestion, to my mind at least, is one of empathy rather than equivalence – a common experience that can help communities understand one another rather than a claim that the issues are of equal magnitude.
The immigrant experience is also central to the film, and again reflects a similar theme – that understanding and solidarity can and should be possible between communities with more in common than they might think. Darryl’s tone-deaf speech at his daughter’s wedding to Eric Bana is the most resonant moment here, with the film making the point that while Darryl might still speak the language of White Australia, the underlying vibe was entirely different. He might express himself poorly, but the message was one of love and acceptance. Maybe this seems optimistic – Australian racism has proven itself to have deeper roots – but you can’t fault the film for optimism. The Castle’s sheer joy is a huge part of what makes it appealing – and funny.
Nowhere is the film’s optimism more apparent than in how it resolves the central issue of class. At first glance, the Australia of The Castle seems divided firmly along class lines – the pensioners, the immigrants, the small-fry, pitted against government and big business. Yet the solution is not simply the victory of the little guys. Without their being able to inspire Lawrence, the retired QC, to take up their case, the Kerrigan’s victory would have been impossible. Here’s the film’s true lesson on class: elite doesn’t have to mean ‘bastard’. Working class Australia needs the educated and successful – who, in turn, need the working class as much if not more. Not just to mow the lawn, or provide cheap labour, but to be able to maintain an emotional connection to the country and its people, without which they (and maybe the whole country) might lose their soul. As the denouement makes clear, Lawrence ends up gaining as much or more through their friendship as Darryl does.
This, ultimately, is why I love The Castle so much. It’s easy to make a film that is critical, that points to social flaws and revels in the bleakness of its own critique. The Castle took the high road – still reflecting society, warts and all, but also seeing value, humanity and above all humour wherever it could. If I ever need to teach anybody about late twentieth-century Australia, I know where I’ll start: with an enduring testament to man’s ability to generate electric cinema.