Well I’ll continue my look back on New Zealand films this week with Roger Donaldson’s second feature film, Smash Palace. Coming out in 1981, the year of my birth, I have a strange affinity with this film, and not just because it’s as old as I am.
It stars the brilliant Bruno Lawrence (R.I.P. 1995 at the tender age of 54 from lung cancer) as the lead character Al Shaw, and supported by a very young Greer Robson who went on to star in Shortland Street as an adult. She plays his young daughter, Georgie, and for a 9 year old it really is a great performance.
Now I normally hate to say things like this, but in New Zealand we just don’t have the same English and American system where they churn out child actors who are amazing. So when you see a performance like this from a ‘kiwi kid’ it really does stand out.
The film starts out innocently enough in a car scrap yard where a young family lives and works together in what seems like harmony. But as the minutes tick by the cracks start to appear in this family unit. Al Shaw, Lawrence, is car mad and has retired back to New Zealand from his days as a racing car driver on the European circuit.
He’s brought with him his beautiful French wife to take over his fathers scrap yard business as his father has recently passed away. Nine years later we find Al very comfortable in his life and loving involving his daughter in the fixing and restoring of classic cars and maintaining his race car, which he still races at the local New Zealand circuits much to his wife’s dismay.
His wife, however, isn’t so content with the life they have created. The wife begins an affair with Al’s best mate and leaves him, taking with her their daughter, leaving Al all alone in his world of broken cars.
As he’s pushed further and further to the edge, his behaviour worsens to the point where he kidnaps his daughter and ‘goes bush’ with her. Now I’ll leave it at that as I don’t want to spoil the ending, and I’ll just say it doesn’t end how you might think it would!
I found this a much stronger film than Donaldson’s first film, Sleeping Dogs, and I can see why this film did so well overseas and was the film that launched Donaldson’s international movie career. The acting, and filmmaking in general, was also a step up from his first film.
Where Sleeping Dogs will go down in New Zealand film history as the film that kick started the industry, Smash Palace will go down as just one of the best New Zealand films ever made.
9 out of 10 from me!!!