Jasper Jones

Scott Wallace
27th Feb 2017

A gripping portrait of small town isolation comes to the screen in Jasper Jones an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Craig Silvey. On the surface, Jasper Jones is an absorbing murder mystery seen through the eyes of a child, but ultimately it reveals itself as a striking evocation of a tight knit community unable to speak about the taboos that stalk among them.

The film's protagonist is not the titular character, but the teenage Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller). Charlie reserved boy who is an avid reader of Mark Twain, who lives with his mother Ruth (Toni Collette) and father Wes (Dan Wyllie) in the small Western Australian town of Corrigan. On Christmas night, 1969, the half-Aboriginal, half-white Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), who lives as an outcast on the outskirts of town comes to Charlie's window seeking help. A body hangs from a tree near Jasper's home, and the vilified town pariah is sure he's going to be blamed for the death. 

Adapted by Craig Silvey himself with Shaun Grant, and directed by Rachel Perkins (RadianceBran Nue Dae), Jasper Jones is an utterly gorgeous and deeply felt picture. Just like Charlie, the audience are immediately thrown into the deep end, and spend the film knowing more than most of the characters about the central mystery, though the film still succeeds in throwing some well-aimed curve balls. Perkins' steady hand and emotional eloquence behind the camera result in a movie that is by turns funny, thrilling, and deeply sorrowful.

There are times where Jasper Jones, by far the most interesting character and performed with marvellous gravitas by McGrath, feels like a bit player in his own story. The story of the budding friendship between Charlie and the troubled Eliza (Angourie Rice) is not as interesting as it could have been, and viewers may wish they had more backstory about the traumatised but caring Jasper. 

There is much to love here, though. The cinematography is gorgeous and velvety, making excellent use of low-lighting in the frequent night time excursions taken by Charlie and Jasper through the town beset by paranoia. Jasper Jones is a modest film, but adult cast members like Hugo Weaving (as the hermetic Jack Lionel) and Toni Collette deliver stunning performances. Collette in particular is excellent, capturing in a heartwrenchingly real way the struggle of a devoted, but isolated housewife.

Jasper Jones takes big themes like racism, mental health, and  domestic abuse and attaches them to a very simple but effective moral. People need to be able to talk to one another. Without communication, we wind up bound by a toxic silence that can only lead to more tragedy. It's a film about having the courage to overcome expectations and stand up for other people, and despite its period setting, it could hardly be more relevant here and now. 

Jasper Jones opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday March 2nd.