Thursday, September 04, 2008

True Heroes: The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)
Screenplay by Peter Berry
Directed by Peter Andrikidis
Music by Iva Davies
Cinematography by Joseph Pickering
Romola Garai Mary Bryant
Jack Davenport Lieutenant Ralph Clarke
Alex O’Loughlin Will Bryant
Sam Neill Governor Arthur Phillip

“I am no hero, and I have no ambition to be made into one. There are some in this court today who have tried to make me something that I am not. I am guilty as charged, as are the two men standing beside me. Not many of us transported can claim to be innocent - some are wicked, and deserve to be feared, but most are not. Most are men and women who risked their lives to feed themselves and their families. Guilty we may be, but worthless we are not. There are many like us in this country, and to transport us away is another country's gain, and this country's loss. Those that survive the harshness of the colonies are the true heroes.” -- Mary Bryant, The Incredible Journey of Mary Byrant

It is hard to resist being entranced by the captivating and ultimately tragic realism with which the historical Mary Bryant’s journey is detailed in this film. Taken in 1788 to the penal colony in New South Wales from her home in England for a trivial crime, Mary Bryant became an enduring icon in British history of someone who refused to admit defeat in the face of devastating odds, and Peter Andrikidis and Peter Berry do an admirable job in bringing her story to life.

Romola Garai brings an extraordinary depth to her character; she is wild; she is passionate; she is recalcitrant; she is manipulative; in short, she is never predictable or boring. Also, Garai’s Mary Bryant is supported by such a strong cast that it is difficult to see the film as being dominated by Bryant’s character. Arguably, the most interesting character in the film is Lieutenant Ralph Clarke (Jack Davenport), for the way in which he is consistently manipulated by Mary. Clarke is the most ostensible representative of the British forces, but, to the director’s and actor’s credit, never becomes the villain of the piece. In fact, the compassion that we invariably feel for the tormented Clarke, torn between his duty to his government and his feelings for Mary, inevitably serves to darken Mary’s character and illustrate the lengths that she is willing to go to to gain her freedom.

In one of the film’s earliest scenes we see Clarke on the deck of the ship on its way to New South Wales, sketching quite beautifully. Soon after, he is on the same deck overseeing the brutal whipping of a female prisoner. The extraordinary limits to which the character is pushed, jostled constantly between extremes, makes short work of poor Will Bryant (Alex O’Loughlin), who never manages to rise above his station as Mary Bryant’s sometime husband.

Garai shares far more chemistry on-screen with Davenport than she does with O’Loughlin, leading us to wonder why on earth she would want to leave Clarke to run away with Bryant. But the answer is clear enough: Mary Bryant values, above all, her freedom. Clarke, as the representative of everything she finds constricting about life in the colony, never stands a chance with her. However, his unequivocally genuine feelings for her complicate the ethics of the film, and lead to rather interesting dilemmas. The tumultuous relationship between Mary and Clarke is a fine illustration of how passion is a far stronger force than mere love: she lives in his house; sleeps in his bed; is treated by him with exquisite tenderness; spits in his face; makes passionate love to him; betrays him ruthlessly; and flees from him. Such extraordinary interactions just do not exist between her and Will; he is, after all, only the husband. Exacerbating Will’s extreme helplessness is the fact that he is forced to allow his wife to sleep with Clarke to gain their freedom, not to mention the fact that he has lied about his seafaring achievements.

Perhaps one of the finest moments between Clarke and Mary Bryant is one in which they do not interact at all; when Mary, apparently secure in her new life as Elizabeth Parker, experiences a moment of sheer terror when she opens her door and sees Lieutenant Clarke standing there, unaware of her presence. Alex O’Loughlin does the needful as Will Bryant, but somehow his character never takes off like the two protagonists do. The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant remains the story of Mary Bryant and Ralph Clarke all the way. The penultimate courtroom scene is terribly poignant, with both Mary and Clarke having lost everything that they had strived for during the course of their stories. Clarke is utterly broken and defeated, and Mary has finally won her freedom, but at terrible cost to herself and those she held most dear.

Ultimately, the incredible journey detailed here is one of discovery. Mary, Clarke and Will are part of something larger than their individual stories; the convicts are not just being taken to a penal colony, but are part of a pioneering expedition to rob the Aborigines of their lands and establish an extension of the Empire that will illustrate its might to everyone that does not subscribe to its principles. The human tendency to cannibalize on its own most valuable resources is heartbreakingly captured in the scene where multiple rapes are inflicted on the women in the camp by their own male companions. Personal stories are played out against the backdrop of critically decisive historical events, and it is to the credit of the cast and crew of this fine film that it is the personal stories that give the narrative its epic feel.

Ralph Clarke: You have no idea who I am… Wilfulness is the root of all sin. Each of us has a daily battle to rein ourselves in. And you… you were the test I failed… twice.

Will Bryant: Still thinking of your lieutenant?
Mary Bryant: There is, and always has been, only one man for me.

Governor Arthur Phillip: Nearest civilization, Timor - three or four thousand miles away. They'd have to negotiate reefs, plus twelve-hundred miles of open sea. And with the burden of carrying a woman, and children, no - even if they survive the sea, they'll never survive each other.

Will Bryant: You'd be better off here. Marry a Dutchman, God knows you've got enough of them lying around at you're feet. No witnesses, no paper... we were blessed by a fool on a beach, wasn't legal outside the colony... you're free.
Mary Bryant: I've never thought of myself as being anything other than free, ever.

Ralph Clarke: I had a choice of two ships to bring me home, I chose this passage because I had to know... I've thought of nothing but you. I've never been so happy, when you came to me with the children and asked for my help.

Mary Bryant: You'll run under blue skies along a proud cliff top with the waves crashing below. You will walk with strong, proud people, and no matter what happens to you, you will never give up. It’s in your blood.


Blogger Caro said...

Very good review but I totally disagree about the lack of chemistry between Will & Mary Bryant. I did not see or feel the chemistry between Mary & Clarke. Alex was just starting out as an actor and I think he did a superb job and made the viewer understand WHY she loved Will above all others. He more than held his own on screen. I enjoyed him in Oyster Farmer & loved him in the tv series Moonlight. I hope to be able to see him again soon on tv since he re-signed with CBS. Hoping for an action type show with humor & romance thrown into the mix....he handles all 3 equally well.

Sat Sept 06, 08:31:00 am GMT+5:30  

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