Michael Caton is one of those actor’s who will forever be thought of as a national treasure, with his “that’s one for the pool room” turn in The Castle resting affectionately in the national consciousness. As it turns out, he’s also been a somewhat wasted national treasure, which he proves with an affecting, funny, moving and complex performance in Jeremy Sims’ Last Cab To Darwin.
Last Cab To Darwin follows Rex, a grumpy cab driver with terminal cancer who has never left his hometown of Broken Hill. He shares a cantankerous and loving relationship with Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), his neighbour, who moves comfortably from shouting at him about using her bins to sharing a cup of tea with him on the porch. Unfortunately, due to the prejudices of the town, their relationship is also a secret. Rex hears of a euthanasia campaigner in Darwin, Dr. Farmer (Jacki Weaver), who has developed a machine that will allow him to die on his own terms. With no family and no one who cares about him, at least in his mind, Rex sets off on a drive to Darwin. On the way he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), a wayward Indigenous man who bounces around getting himself into trouble despite leaving a wife and children behind, and Julie (Emma Hamilton), an English backpacker and ex-nurse. By the time he gets there, he finds out that not only has Dr. Farmer made him the face of her right to die campaign, but it also may not be as easy to tap out as he hoped.
Last Cab to Darwin began as a stage play, originally running at the Opera House with Barry Otto in the lead role, and its move to the screen has been a thirteen year process. As a film, it doesn’t feel tied to its theatrical roots at all, fitting naturally into the cinematic medium with a real sense of movement and scope.
Sims has delivered a euthanasia film that ultimately is far more concerned with the relationships we build than the politics of a dignified death. Across the board, the film reserves judgement – on the morality of euthanasia, on Tilly’s infidelity, on Dr Farmer’s sheer determination to pursue her cause – instead presenting the narrative machinations as part of the complex fabric that makes up human existence. At the centrepiece of the existence is Rex’s relationship with Polly, and his repeated insistence that there is no one he needs to talk to about his decision, and no one he would leave behind, become increasingly heartbreaking.
Caton anchors and elevates the film all at once, giving us a protagonist that we both cheer and despair for. He is not a faultless hero, and as he drives further from Broken Hill we can be as disappointed about what he is leaving behind as we are invested in his safe arrival in Darwin. Lawford-Wolf is a force to reckoned with as Polly, a woman with a truly strong core. Polly feels genuinely nuanced as a character, refusing to behave as expected and defined by her race only by those around her, not herself. She is a brilliant counterpoint to Caton, providing a balancing energy in the film.
The rest of the cast fill in the gaps nicely, with Coles Smith giving sympathy but not impunity to the rascally Tilly, and Hamilton bringing depth beyond lost-girl-cum-carer as Julie. Weaver, another affectionately held national treasure, is predictably wonderful as her Dr Farmer is slowly revealed to be perhaps too driven, and more than a beneficent angel of death in the complicated battle for the right to die. The film is littered with solid Australian actors and performances from Leah Purcell’s small role as Farmer’s receptionist to Rex’s Broken Hill drinking buddies played by John Howard, Alan Dukes and David Field.
At times the plot feels a little stalled – while Rex’s 3000 kilometre journey feels at first to be the structuring device for the film, we eventually find ourselves in limbo in Darwin as the film moves onto other concerns. In a way, Sims puts us in Rex’s shoes, as we also find ourselves waiting for him to die, and the focus of the film shifts from Rex’s journey to the consequences of Rex’s decisions. Rex is not given an easy way out, and neither are we. The film does feel like it loses pace and focus here, until we find ourselves travelling back to Broken Hill, but it is a small weakness and perhaps an opportune moment for reflection.
Sims works to inject plenty of lightness into what could be a morose study in human mortality. Here just as much credit is owed to Caton, who is adept at giving a wry spin to balance out the cantankerous determination. This is so much more than a euthanasia road movie or a lecture on the right to dignity in death, and will leave audiences satisfied, if teary.