Brendan Cowell and a supporting cast of top shelf Aussie actors generate rousing performances from behind a couple of inches of mud and grime in Beneath Hill 60, an on-the-battlefield WWI pic that focuses not on soldiers per se but mine engineers – men who dug tunnels underneath enemy lines, and, in 1916, lit the fuse on the biggest load of explosives the world had ever known.
Much of the action takes place ‘neath the surface, with Oliver Woodward (Cowell) aka your average-ocker-bloke-in-extenuating-circumstances the newly appointing commander of a team of Allies in Belgium assigned the task of sending German troops to kingdom come. The mine scenes are sweaty, claustrophobic and intense – well staged, well paced and captivating. Similarly, scenes set in trenches and on the carnage-ravaged surface are frighteningly evocative, an air of uncomfortable realism sustained by director Jeremy Sims (Last Train to Freo) throughout, which provides needed balance to the moments of “c’arn Aussie” histrionics.
War stories inherently offer filmmakers powerful theatrical settings virtually pre-loaded with dramatic contrivances and any number of inspirational themes: mateship, valour, courage under fire, etcetera etcetera. They also present challenging dilemmas: how to celebrate the achievements of one side, for example, without invariably celebrating the setbacks of another? Filmmakers often don’t get this tenuous balance right. Brilliantly staged war recreations such as the kind Spielberg brought to Saving Private Ryan (1998) can be so easily soured by small moments of rampant flag waving. Spielberg’s Omaha Beach landing was great cinema: visceral, horrifying, uncompromising. But his close-up shots of the American flag flapping in the wind were singlehandedly enough to cast doubt on the director’s motives – an excessively parochial, jingoistic and narrow-minded touch.
An equivalent cringe inducing moment thankfully never arrives in Beneath Hill 60, and Sims by and large strikes a good balance between dramatically satisfying storytelling and a broader responsibility not to simplify war into the crude context of goodies versus baddies. Still, the film’s narrative doesn’t entirely shrug off an uncomfortably celebratory feeling.
Beneath Hill 60 is undoubtedly best when its characters are caked in filth and sweating it out on or below the battlefield. An extraneous tangent depicting Woodward’s life back home and his softly simmering cradle robbing romance between himself and a 16-year-old is much less impressive and on occasions borderline schmaltzy. The film would have been stronger and bolder without it. And although the story’s highly anticipated climax isn’t quite the theatrical ka-boom! it intends to be, it nevertheless wraps up an engrossing experience, and a film that will be talked about for some time.
Beneath HIll 60’s Australian theatrical release date: April 15, 2010