Cannes Film Festival – Justin Kurzel’s ‘Nitram’ in competition

Based around the Port Arthur gunman, Nitram is the first Australian film in official competition in a decade.

Justin Kurzel’s controversial Nitram, inspired by the lead-up to the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in 1996, has been announced as one of the 24 films in official competition for the prestigious P’alme d’Or at Cannes. This is the first Australian film in a decade, with the last being Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty in 2011.

For Kurzel this is a satisfying answer to a public campaign which condemned the film before a single frame was shot. The film did not receive direct funding from state agencies or Screen Australia, but the MIFF Premiere Fund was involved, and it will have its Australian premiere in August at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Nitram, which spells ‘Martin’ backwards, does not mention the gunman by name and stars American actor Caleb Landry in the lead role, alongside Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia as his parents, and Essie Davis. Apparently there is not one murder shown on screen and the film instead aims to delve into the psychology of the character. The film was shot in Geelong, standing in for Tasmania.

For Nitram, Kurzel is reunited with Shaun Grant, a key writer on Snowtown, and his brother Jed Kurzel, who always writes music on his films. The producers here have a strong Madman flavour – they are Good Thing Productions’ Nick Batsias and Virginia Whitwell, along with Shaun Grant, and Jed Kurzel, with Paul Wiegard as executive producer. Nitram is a Stan Original production and Madman Entertainment will handle theatrical.

Kurzel at Cannes: a history

Australian films have a patchy record at the Cannes Film Festival, which is simultaneously biassed to US indy darlings, to European and Middle Eastern auteurs and to the flashiest of American tentpoles. It is the ultimate stamping ground of the director as hero – indeed it helped to create the whole mythos. This is France so it celebrates the French language and European cinema more generally. The French have such strong Arabic and Mediterranean Muslim connections so it is also more sensitive than most to those traditions. 

Into this strides Justin Kurzel with Nitram, which has been selected for the Official Competition.

Kurzel began his career in 2011 with Snowtown, the utterly bleak account of the eleven murders which culminated in the discovery of their bodies in barrels in a bank vault in the town which is now forever notorious. It went to Cannes and won a special mention in Critics Week and for the FIPRESCI Prize, and was nominated for three other awards as well.  

Kurzel came back to Cannes in 2015 with his version of Macbeth, which was much more international though he brought a classical version of his unique sensibility. He was nominated for the Palm d’Or, and won special mentions yet again for Critics Week and the FIPRESCI Award.

Read more: Cannes 2015 – a modest haul for marsupial southerners

That film gave him a close relationship with stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, which enabled him to direct Assassin’s Creed, based on the video game, for a veritable herd of producers and no less than fifteen production companies. It was nominated for nothing but a Golden Trailer Award, which it won. It was a flawed project, but Kurzel had no hand in the script.  

Kurzel returned to Australia for The True History of the Kelly Gang, his third project with actress (and his wife) Essie Davis and second with Shaun Grant as writer, though Kurzel again was not credited on the script. Key producers were Liz Watts, Vincent Sheehan as executive producer along with Paul Ranford and Hal Vogel. It did not break out on the festival circuit but it won three AACTAs for Costume, Hair and Makeup, and Production Design, and scored the AWGIE for Best Adaptation from the Australian Writers Guild. 

Read more: Putting Ned Kelly in a dress – an interview with Justin Kurzel

It went to the Toronto Film Festival, was released in the UK and the US, and did okay on Rotten Tomatoes which described it like this: ‘Its unusual approach won’t be for all viewers, but True History of the Kelly Gang takes a distinctively postmodern look at Australia’s past.’

The frenzy around Nitram

Now, Kurzel is back at Cannes for the third time with Nitram. Every single film that Justin Kurzel makes sends some section of the community into a frenzy, and this is the most dangerous. Even the screen sector fuelled the controversy as Richard Keddie opposed it in public. Tasmanians objected to bringing the atrocity back to life, and the picture was assumed to be some kind of salacious gorefest. But Shaun Grant put his side of the story to Karl Quinn and Rachel Clun in The Age.

‘Grant said that was not what Nitram is about. “I take great offence at the conspiracy theory stuff,” he said. “Our film has no links to any of that. It absolutely is aiming to look at [the factors that shaped his psychology] and to shine a light on these people in the fringes, and how accessible it was for a person with that psychology to piece together an arsenal and do what he did.

Read: The Nitram Controversy: some wider implications

‘”We can’t assume these people don’t exist, that this is a one-off, because it’s not,” he said. “I was curious: who are these boys, and what can we learn to ensure this is a thing of the past?”‘

Trauma specialist Richard Bryant waded in too. ‘Without minimising the merits of this argument, our knowledge about trauma memories suggests the main challenge for the film’s producers is that it be made with sensitivity to those directly affected by the shootings, and does not aggravate any psychological distress,’ he wrote.

‘If a film depicts much graphic violence or idealises or excuses the shooter’s actions, it could compound the traumatic nature of people’s memories. This could be detrimental to someone whose memories of the event are triggered by the film.

‘The producers would do well to consult with those directly affected by the shootings, as well as mental health experts, to ensure the film minimises exacerbating psychological distress.’

None of us have seen Nitram, but the Cannes Festival has given all three of Kurzel’s auteur films the privilege of competition in the main game. He could win this, which would be very satisfying… 

 Justin Kurzel is a remarkable filmmaker with a distinctive vision and the tenacity to bend the world to his sensibility. He is unique, surprising and playful, with an uncanny ability to provoke the wowser in the quietest breast. None of us have seen Nitram, but the Cannes Festival has given all three of Kurzel’s auteur films the privilege of competition in the main game. He could win this, which would be very satisfying, not least to the major Australian producers who have backed him despite his edginess. 

The Cannes Film Festival, which has been delayed by two months, will open on July 6 with Leos Carax’s Annette, and run until July 17. Other films in competition include Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria. They are all listed on the Cannes site

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.