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Australia 1976
Directed by
Fred Schepisi
95 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Devil's Playground

Fred Schepisi's first directorial effort, set in a Melbourne Christian Brothers-run seminary in the early 1950s, is a skilfully-made film albeit somewhat flat dramatically. It is a portrait of the experiences of a 13 year-old boy, Tom Allan (Simon Burke), and the men who are charged with educating him and ensuring his supposed vocation.

Adapted by Schepisi from the semi-autobiographical novel by Thomas Keneally, who trained for 7 years to be a priest before bailing out and who appears here as Father Marshall, the theme of Catholic sexual repression is the script’s central issue. Although explored in various guises, from the boys’ masturbatory adventures to the struggles of the Brothers to deal with their sexual desires (which, in these more innocent times, were depicted without any suggestion of abuse of the boys) Schepisi’s approach tends to be illustrational rather than dramatically engaging. The result is always visually effective, with some marvellous tableaux, but not something which engages one emotionally.

Of course, not only was this Schepisi’s first film (he had learned his craft from making TV commercials), but the revitalized Australian film industry itself was in its infancy and many of the actors he used were primarily from theatre, something which perhaps adds to the rather staged feeling of the film. The performances are however solid, with Simon Burke in his first acting role being at times a little over-earnest but in general acquitting himself well in what is a demanding role.

The Devil’s Playground for its day, however, is an impressively mature film, a brave and confrontational treatment of a taboo subject and deservedly stands as a classic of Australian cinema.

DVD Extras: Umbrella's fine presentation provides a new widescreen telecine transfer which provides excellent visual quality. Extras include a useful audio commentary by the director (marred somewhat by his tendency to umm and errr a lot); a featurette with Schepisi and key cast and crew talking about the film (43m); a separate featurette with Schepisi talking about his approach to film-making (39m); Stills gallery; Theatrical trailer.

Available from: Umbrella Entertainment




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