Nitram by Justin Kurzel (dir) - review by Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

Return to Port Arthur



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Tasmania dangles at the bottom of the world and for that reason is usually overlooked, even by its snooty neighbours on the Australian mainland. It took a disaster to make the obscure place newsworthy: in 1996, a mentally unbalanced misfit randomly murdered thirty-five people and left twenty-three others injured during a shooting spree in the ruins of Port Arthur, a viciously punitive 18th-century convict settlement. Wiseacres said that the mass shooting marked Tasmania’s ‘loss of innocence’, yet this long-suffering little island – the site of a gulag for Britain’s transported felons, later the scene of a colonial genocide of the native population and recently threatened, like the Amazon, by profit-mongering deforesters – had no innocence to lose.

The local response to the massacre has been a willed amnesia. While the killer, Martin Bryant, paces to and fro in a cage serving thirty-five life sentences, his name is never spoken out loud and can’t be printed in the newspapers. Nitram, Justin Kurzel’s reimagining of the case, takes its title from the jeering back-to-front nickname he was given at school, but identifies him only as an anonymous lone gunman. Wary of causing offence, Kurzel avoided Tasmanian locations and instead made his film in Geelong, south of Melbourne; it was shown by only two cinemas in Tasmania, which did not dare to advertise the screenings, though Caleb Landry Jones, the young Texan cast as Nitram, went on to win the prize for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

The politicians who denied Kurzel government funds and refused even to meet him were probably alarmed because his first film, Snowtown, dealt with another real-life Australian psychopath, the creepily affable John Bunting, convicted of torturing and then butchering a dozen victims in suburban Adelaide during the 1990s. It

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