Film Review: Pawno (Australia, 2016)

A film this intrinsically Aussie must exist as an enigma to international audiences. Something very alien, and as I thought once before, about what those people distant from the Antipodes would have made of Crackerjack, I again think for Pawno, and wonder whether subtitles could comprehend or merely transcribe the dialogue of a film so particular.

Pawno in description sounds very ambitious, the story of twelve Melbournian lives drifting through a warm Footscray day, all gravitating around a pawnshop where Les (played by John Brumpton) employs Danny (Played by Damian Hill) in a seemingly jejune occupation. This is where most of the film takes place, the relationship between Les and Danny forms the crux and the other stories, however well done, linger on the fringes.

Addled vagabonds Marco (Malcolm Kennard) and Pauly (Mark Coles Smith) are the well-written provocateurs, the buoys almost to the films authenticity with their infinite colloquial depth. There’s a sullen mother looking for her son (Jennifer Montgomery), a widower who’s appears a little lost (Tony Rickards) and range of smaller narratives played out in three or fewer scenes. Some of which are done well and some of which seem to pass by without achieving any sort of impact. The worst of such is love interest Kate (Maeve Dermody), the one internal narrative that seems to forgo relativism for a John Green type naiveté.

For a directorial debut, Paul Ireland has achieved something that contemporary set Australian films have been lacking. The multicultural ethos and amorphous faces colour the film in a humbling way, and audiences are given an opportunity to see Melbourne’s ethnic mixing pot through a harmonious lens. Damian Hill has written characters that any Australian could relate to, each persona given idiosyncrasies that we would find in friends or family. And these are the elements that carry Pawno through the overarching, fragmented narrative.

Split almost directly into day and night, the first three-quarters gradually build and interweave narratives, at times with weak characters that distract from what’s going on, but more often with stories that complement the films progress. As night comes, each story wraps up in it’s own non-interventionist way, allowing the inferences audiences had drawn to develop into complete character arches, and the best moments of the film take place in these final scenes. There’s a lot about what isn’t expressed in these final scenes that make them so valuable, making every scene each character had more meaningful.

There’s still a lot of missed opportunity in Pawno. The film opens to a radio broadcast on rising tax, then again skims the borders of a deeper rationale when Les, looking to the incremental Melbourne skyline, mutters something about how the yuppies should get fucked. An interesting premise, remaining unfulfilled in the broader spectrum of the film. And whether the film feels like one motion picture, or six short films, will ultimately depend on the viewer, although it’s a little difficult to deny the seamlessness when the cuts are done so well.

The performances from Malcolm Kennard and Mark Coles Smith are exceptional, both moving recently from hit to hit. Maeve Dermody also showed flourishes of her potential, but it seems her best is yet to come. The performance of the entire ensemble cast proves that the Australian acting pool is getting deeper, with special mention to John Brumpton as a standout leading man.

While there are elements of the screenplay that  should have been forgone, Danny’s internal monologues and Lai’s awful stereotype the first to come to mind, Pawno is a solid entry to the fray of Australian cinema and alongside Broke, offers a lot of optimism for the future direction of Australian narratives.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)