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Oh the good ol’ days when country towns were based on a pecking order with the shire president at the top and the foreigners and indigenous people at the bottom, where sport was valued infinitely more than brains. Jasper Jones, book and film, sets up Corrigan, a fictitious town in 1960’s WA, as being all that, and then rolls it over, exposing its belly to the sun.
The novel's town and its characters, written with a deft hand by Craig Silvey, is morphed into an extraordinary visual delight by the film. All scenes were beautifully shot with the lavishness of a cinematic viewing in mind. Whether it be entering dark woods in the middle of the night, or in the glaring sun of a local cricket match, the audience was invited in. The intricacies of removable glass slats in Charlie's window and the dust of the library made the locations seem touchable, real. The cars of the 1960s appearing shiny and new made it like a picture book. Corrigan's environment was clear and present, without taking on a lead role of its own, yet vital for the story to be told.
The narrator of the story, Charlie, is a quintessential teenager nerd, due to his love of reading, lack of sporting ability and fear of insects. This is reinforced with his glasses and “pansy sandals”. Derogatory gay terms, such as this, flow freely, mainly between friends as they take the piss out of each other, ‘queer’ being the main word of choice between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey. I grew up in a country town much larger than the one in Jasper Jones; the term ‘poofter’ was used in a similar manner, an insult for fun or to be hurled with venom. The film seemed to give this friendship a lighter touch than the book but the few interactions shown provided the main moments of comic relief. In the book, the beautiful dialogue between Charlie and Jeffrey was one of the many highlights for me but yet I cringed at the use of these terms.
Jeffrey and his family are Vietnamese Australians with young Jeffrey excluded from and bullied by the team of cricket whites, despite his outstanding talent. They called him ‘Cong’ in a demeaning and degrading way until he saved the team from a humiliating loss, having accidentally scraped into the team due to the illness of a team member, and then suddenly ‘Cong’ was used with affection. It doesn’t stop it being a derogatory term though. It is interesting to note that I had trouble finding the name of the actor playing Jeffrey, Kevin Long, just as the producers had trouble finding him.
Words are important to young Charlie and his father, both secretly harbouring ambitions of being authors. They understand the importance of words and terms and labels and try to understand the people beneath them. As for our titular character, Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), he couldn’t read, plus he had an Aboriginal mother and a drunkard father and was thus excluded from society. His only saving grace was his football talent, which excused him from being a school truant. However, it did not save him from being one of the first names on gossipers’ lips when something went wrong.
And, of course, something did go wrong. The shire president’s daughter disappeared one night. If it couldn’t be blamed on Jasper Jones, it must have been the fault of the other scapegoat, Mad Jack Lionel, who had killed before, rumour had it. Not believing either outcast did anything wrong, Charlie earnestly investigates the truth of Laura Wishart’s disappearance. It’s complicated by his love interest being Laura’s younger sister, Eliza, beautifully played by Angourie Rice. Her death stare is something to behold. Charlie is also beautifully played, by Levi Miller. Yet, in appearance alone, they are a little too attractive to be the school oddballs.
The one character that drifted too far from the book portrayal, in my view, was Charlie’s Mum, acted by Toni Collette. The author, Craig Silvey, has said he fleshed her out a bit more for the movie version but instead she became unconvincing as a character. She was too nice and typically Mumsy in the beginning, and then quite suddenly started flipping out, whereas the book had a darker undertone in her from the start. I was particularly annoyed with the movie having her buy a new car out of the blue. It didn’t seem to fit with the time or place. The only other whinge I have about the adaptation is the little extra bravery given to Charlie during the course of the film.
Jasper Jones is a coming of age story but it’s about all of us. It’s a strong Australian story with prejudices and secrets laid bare, without shoving them down your throat. The heart of the tale lies with the young characters, in both the novel and the film. They are exquisitely written characters brought to life by seriously talented actors. It is disappointing that a film simply can’t capture all the detailed nuances, thoughts and motivations of the book’s characters but it’s a superb film anyway. Watch the film. Read the book. It doesn’t matter what order you do it in. They’re both brilliant.