Tim Winton is hard to adapt for the screen. Do it right, as in Simon Baker’s 2017 feature directing debut, Breath, and you can wind up with something quite special, a thoughtful meditation on adolescence and loss, with a palpable sense of time and place. Do it wrong, as in Gregor Jordan’s take on Winton’s 2001 novel, Dirt Music, and you wind up with a soporific seaside soap opera. Yes, I’m proud of the alliteration, but the point still stands. Despite some truly beautiful location work, the screen iteration of Dirt Music has no sense of itself, let alone a sense of cultural and geographic connection to its setting.
Indeed, as adapted by screenwriter Jack Thorne (Skins, Enola Holmes, and we’ll circle back around to this guy’s Britishness before long), Dirt Music plays out more like Nicholas Sparks than Winton, and not in a good way (I’ll go to the mat for The Notebook any day). In a remote fishing village on the WA coast (exact location nebulous, possibly mythic) free spirit Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald) is beginning to get restless, chafing in her relationship with local crayfish captain Jim Buckridge (David Wenham). Following a chance encounter with hunky, brooding, local recluse Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), she embarks on a passionate affair with the former musician. But he harbours a tragic past (of course he does), being – literally in the language of the film – haunted by his dead family, who perished in a car accident. He’s also a crayfish poacher, which sets him up for conflict with Jim. How will it all play out?