REVIEW – ‘Top End Wedding’ is exactly what Australian cinema is aching for

It’s been 25 years since Australian cinema produced a top quality romantic comedy. Over two decades after Muriel’s Wedding, our local film industry has barely touched the genre, let alone delivered a film worthy of rivalling anything America or the UK can dish up. How wonderfully refreshing it is to see something like Top End Wedding appear in our cinemas. Even more invigorating is the fact it’s written, directed, and starring members of our Indigenous community.

Standing as both a gorgeous love letter to Indigenous culture and an utterly charming tale of love and family, this film may prove to be exactly what the Australian cinema landscape is aching for. With a star-making performance from the endearing Miranda Tapsell (who also serves as the film’s co-writer) and beautiful location photography to showcase the dazzling majesty of our Top End, this is one Aussie cinematic wedding you must RSVP ‘yes’ to.

In present-day Adelaide, we meet aspiring corporate lawyer Lauren (Tapsell), anxiously preparing for a major presentation that should lead to an associate promotion from her oppressive boss Ms. Hampton (Kerry Fox). Despite a few bumps along the way, all eventually goes well and the promotion is rightfully hers. Meanwhile, things are not quite going so smoothly for her beleaguered district prosecutor boyfriend Ned (Gwilym Lee), who makes the rash decision to quit his job and walk away from the legal profession for good.

Awaiting his girlfriend’s return at home, Ned prepares to announce his major news before asking Lauren to marry him. But when Ned cuts straight to the marriage proposal (to which she naturally says yes), he can’t bring himself to tell Lauren his sudden unemployment status and dampen the happy mood. With her mind clearly elsewhere, Hampton grants Lauren 10 days of leave to “take care” of the wedding and return back to her, ready to start her new position.

Lauren has long dreamed of being married in her hometown of Darwin, so the newly-engaged couple jump on a flight to the Northern Territory for a hastily planned Top End wedding. But when they touch down, they discover Lauren’s distraught father Trevor (Huw Higginson) in a terrible funk. His wife and Lauren’s mother Daffy (Ursula Yovich) has disappeared and set off on a mysterious voyage of self-discovery. With the pending nuptials put on hold, Lauren and Ned set off into the outback to find Daffy, which ultimately leads to Lauren reconnecting with the Indigenous heritage she’s long distanced herself from.

As one expects of a film of this nature, there are plenty of cliché mishaps and scenarios that are all a tad too expected and fairly foreseen. Co-written with Joshua Tyler, Tapsell’s screenplay doesn’t exactly break the mould of the well-worn romantic comedy genre. There’s the wild bachelorette party, thrown by Lauren’s three best friends and bridesmaids (Shari SebbensDalara Williams, and Elaine Crombie), where the four combine for a perfectly choreographed dance number. There’s the epic road trip, doted with a helping of quirky characters along the way, where nothing goes according to plan.

And, of course, there’s the big fight scene where the wedding appears to be off. But when you place “wedding” in the title of your film and feature the bride-to-be in a wedding dress on every piece of promotional artwork, we all kinda know where this is heading, so there’s no real semblance of the dramatic tension the film often longs to portray. But not every film has to deftly subvert expectations. Playing to a genre’s strong tropes can be perfectly fine, particularly when the result is so giddily enjoyable.

The boundless strength of Top End Wedding lies in its superb ensemble cast, led with the gorgeous charm and charisma of its leading lady with a brimming smile that could light up the darkest room. As the headstrong and determined Lauren, Tapsell’s presence is beautifully captivating and effortlessly lovable. She consistently brings sincere warmth to this performance, crafting a character you can’t help but adore and cheer for. As co-writer, she’s composed herself a character Tapsell clearly heavily identifies with and the result is the film’s greatest triumph.

Ned’s awkward, goofy nature and penchant for saying the decidedly wrong thing at the wrong time is heavily played for laughs, which can prove a little exhausting and overwrought. But Lee is as endlessly likeable as his co-star, so it’s far from fatal to the film. Once the story really settles in, he’s allowed the chance to show the engaging heart behind his goofball character. Tapsell’s chemistry with Lee is magnetic, creating a love story that never once feels anything but earnest and genuine.

Surrounding our two leads is an array of heartwarming and hilarious supporting characters, each with their own role to play. As Lauren’s caring but emotionally devastated father, Higginson is perfectly cast, with every shred of sorrow and despair etched on his downtrodden face. Sebbens, Williams, and Crombie combine to create a trio of best friends any girl would be lucky to call upon in their hour of need. Fox brings intimidating energy to her boss from hell Ms. Hampton (who Ned nicknames “Cruella”), but the screenplay spins her character arc on its head, allowing the actress to offer more than just a witch with an attitude.

But the real scene-stealer here is Yovich, whose stoic demeanour hides painful regret over past decisions that are finally catching up with her. As a teenager, Daffy fled her homeland of the Tiwi Islands, causing her to lose touch with her heritage and culture. It’s this cultural abandonment and disconnection that’s become her daughter’s unwitting inheritance. The narrative leads both mother and daughter back to Tiwi and the resulting embrace of Indigenous culture is downright breathtaking and tear-inducing, made all the more effective by the use of Tiwi natives in the film’s beautiful conclusion.

With every fibre of this film, you can feel Tapsell and director Wayne Blair‘s deep connection to Indigenous culture. Wisely ignoring the potential for the couple’s interracial pairing to become a narrative issue, Top End Wedding instead celebrates and honours Indigenous people and their fascinating traditions. While the film is littered with genuine laugh-out-loud moments, it peppers these with moments of familial drama that highlight the complicated yet powerful connection between mother and daughter.

Standing as a remarkable tourism commercial for the Northern Territory, the cinematography of Eric Murray Lui (in his feature film debut, no less) is a genuinely stunning sight to behold. From the red-rock wonders of the Kakadu National Park to the untouched splendours of the Tiwi Islands, Lui captures the grandeur of the Top End with deft skill. As Lauren sails on a boat down a river slicing through the Katherine Gorge, it’s hard not to gasp at the striking imagery Lui has managed to elicit from one of this nation’s most beloved natural wonders.

As an important moment for representation and inclusivity in Australian cinema, Top End Wedding is the gift that keeps on giving. Both a hilarious comedy and a heartwarming love story, it strikes the right balance between entertainment and enlightenment. You’ll walk away thoroughly entertained but also with a greater appreciation for a culture mainstream cinema so often ignores. This is a film to cheer for, and may it reap the benefits of an Australian audience crying out for something so damn uplifting.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Miranda Tapsell, Gwilym Lee, Kerry Fox, Huw Higginson, Ursula Yovich, Shari Sebbens, Dalara Williams, Elaine Crombie, Tracy Mann, Matt Crook, Shaka Cook, Tessa Rose, Jason DeSantis
Director: Wayne Blair
Producers: Rosemary Blight, Kylie du Fresne, Kate Croser
Screenplay: Joshua Tyler, Miranda Tapsell
Cinematography: Eric Murray Lui
Music: Antony Paros
Production Design: Amy Baker
Editor: Chris Plummer
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: 2nd May 2019 (Australia)

This review was originally posted at the AU review and can be viewed here.

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