Dirt Music review – Tim Winton adaptation falls flat despite cinematic dreams

Garrett Hedlund takes his shirt off a lot in the romantic movie Dirt Music – his creamy-skinned, chiselled-featured body seemingly belonging to a gene pool combining Errol Flynn with a Hemsworth brother. The American actor, who boasts an impressively convincing Australian accent, screams “beach hunk” in no uncertain terms. Some of the film’s problems arise when the script – adapted by director Gregor Jordan from Tim Winton’s Miles Franklin award-winning novel of the same name – requires his character to scream other things too, such as “mysterious person with a traumatic past” and “broken, emotionally reticent man”.

The narrative initially appears to be unfolding from the perspective of former nurse Georgie (Scottish Kelly Macdonald, also with a good accent), who is the girlfriend of a wealthy fisherman (David Wenham) – although their relationship is going through a bad patch. But Hedlund’s character, Lu, a musician-cum-lobster thief (now there’s a career progression to put on your LinkedIn profile), wrests co-lead status after the pair bump into each other while Georgie is skinny-dipping in the ocean at night. This moment is bathed in a deep midnight blue, emphasising water as a key motif and implying a fleeting tranquility – the calm before the storm.

The pair sleep together shortly after, in one of those movie sex scenes in which the actors demonstrate a remarkable ability to get it on while remaining pretty much fully clothed. The trajectory of their relationship is rocky and later Lu is sitting, in fact, on literal rocks, alone and forlorn, cooking fish by the sea, deep in thought and gazing into the ocean.

I gazed too, pondering why Dirt Music looks shiny and gloss-lacquered but not cinematic – asking myself to what extent this only intermittently engaging film might have benefited from a more engaging aesthetic.

The sight of the fish brought to my mind visions of the director Warwick Thornton also preparing a seafood meal metres from the water in his exquisite, almost transcendental TV series The Beach, which does look strikingly cinematic – even if that word may be difficult to define. When I asked Thornton for his definition he responded half-jokingly: “It means even if it’s boring as batshit, fuck it looks good!” What it does not mean, as Dirt Music demonstrates, is “long shots of the beach” or “lush outdoor settings”.

In Thornton and his son Dylan River’s hands, small things look grand: boots in the sand; crabs scurrying along the beach. In Dirt Music – filmed across Western Australia in coastal locations such as the Dampier Peninsula and Esperance by cinematographer Sam Chaplin (who also shot The Cry and Safe Harbour) – grand things seem small. The film has a largely flavourless look, which in a sense matches the nondescript sensibility of Jordan’s direction and to a lesser extent Jack Thorne’s screenplay. The vibe is a Nicholas Sparks adaptation with an outback twist, though Jordan was obviously shooting for profundity and visual lyricism – the latter, like “visual poetry”, being a dangerous quality to aspire to.

Georgie and Lu’s romance provides the basic paradigm of a love triangle, with Wenham’s character representing the life Georgie longs to break free from – which is to say, the side most likely to collapse. Both lead characters carry baggage with a capital B (with appropriately plaintive performances) and the film unravels details of their past mostly coyly, despite flashbacks to a dramatic occasion in Lu’s life that captures a very familiar kind of a trauma-inducing incident (no spoilers) in service of a very familiar message, ie that this was his trigger to quit music.

Emotional pressure points bring to the surface dialogue that might work beautifully in Winton’s book, but linger cloyingly on screen and in spoken word, further straining the credibility of the drama. Hedlund at one point – in broken, emotionally reticent man mode – says: “I don’t play any more. I don’t even listen.” I felt bad, almost, at how little I cared for him in this moment despite Hedlund doing a reasonable job as an actor. It just sounded so self-pitying.

Jordan has been drawn to the water several times before, including in his classic crime caper Two Hands (Heath Ledger’s visit to the beach constituting a crucial turning point in the plot) and the 2012 documentary Ian Thorpe: the Swimmer. So too has Winton, the previous most recent screen adaptation of his work being Breath – director Simon Baker’s much more interesting and distinctive film, visually styled with a vaporish and greyish quality, as if emulating sea foam or mist from the crest of a wave.

When Dirt Music reaches its emotional peak, the idea of people reaching out and trying to connect with each other is both symbolised and literalised, with metaphoric oceans between the characters and an actual ocean around them. I remembered a line which I love from Bob Dylan’s song High Water (For Charley Patton) about baggage and rejection, connection and disconnection, hopelessness and helplessness: “Don’t reach out to me, she said, can’t you see I’m drowning too.”

Dirt Music eventually arrives at a deep, thought-provoking moment – but it takes the entire film to get there.

• Dirt Music is open in some Australian cinemas on Thursday 8 October