Beneath Hill 60 marks the welcome return of the epic war movie, in this post-Gallipoli true life story of heroism, mateship, and the consequence of warfare.
As a general rule of thumb, Australian films are rarely made on this scale. Budget restrictions brought about by the limited financial structure equal more low key (and often dreary) drama at the cinemas, rather than big budget entertainers.
It is only fitting, then, that Beneath Hill 60 is a composite of both stirring drama and big visuals, while also thrusting the long absent WW1 film back into the multiplexes.
Based on true events, the film tells the mostly true story of the 1st Australian tunnelling company, a group largely made up of miners led by engineer Oliver Woodward, whose diaries were used as the catalyst and basis for the film.
Portraying Woodward is Brendan Cowell, one of Australia’s most respected yet undervalued actors, who boasts a quick wit and intelligence and can hold an audience with his screen presence, a vital quality in depicting the steely heroism his character inhabits, along with moments of vulnerability.
Set in the muddy battlefields of the Messines Ridge (near the Belgium border), Woodward’s assignment is to lead his men underneath enemy lines and find a solution to stop the steady flow of sea water rotting away a wall of charges located directly underneath the German outpost of Hill 60, so they can blow the krauts to kingdom come.
This makes Beneath Hill 60 something of a first: a war film fought with mathematics as well as artillery.
Director Jeremy Sims (of Last Train to Freno acclaim) magnificently captures the mud, blood, and sweat of this unique brand of trench warfare, filling the frame with the dark, constrictive space of his tunnels (superbly created by production designer Clayton Jauncey), which will make many a claustrophobic shift in their seat.
Its re-enactment of this hellish environment is made even more real with fully fleshed, finely acted portrayals of Woodward’s men. Among them the dark yet humorous Norman “Pull Through” Morris (Gyton Grantley); second in command Sergeant Bill Fraser (Steve Le Marquand); and the heartbreakingly tragic father & son duo, Jim and Walter Sneddon (Alan Dukes and Alex Thompson).
The camaraderie among the cast is infectious, with the Aussie larrikin spirit adding texture to the bloodshed. And as they bond, so too do we the viewer become close to them.
Yet this is Woodward’s story, and Beneath Hill 60 delves into this unlikely of war heroes. Sure, the use of flashback scenes (featuring Bella Heathcote) do feel clunky, yet they add a dimension to who this man was before the war, and how the choices he made during battle would forever change him.
A montage of pictures featuring real Australian soldiers during WW1 only skims the surface of what Woodward saw and did. Beneath Hill 60 brilliantly does the rest.