Anna Reeves' debut film, Oyster Farmer, is set in the wilds of New South Wales, among hard-scrabble men and women who in America would be Gulf Coast aquaculturists, or crayfish farmers in the misty bayous of Louisiana. For the writer-director, they're an endangered species, and their disappearance spells the loss of a resplendent, untamed corner of Australia. In the oyster farmers' avidity for their littoral Eden, and in their alacrity and petty jealousies, Reeves discovers an allegory for the ebb and flow of life in these uncertain times.
When a stranger arrives from the city as an extra hand for the oyster harvest, ripples appear, but then these were never calm waters: Generational in-fighting, pesky relatives and roughhewn men uneasy with the ways of their sagacious feminine companions, some of whom hold the secret to farming a great oyster, have always made life here just a jot short of paradise. The newcomer is Jack Flange, an Adonis in whose trail blow the winds of change. As nature and romantic comedy would have it, Jack is also transformed-by New South Wales and by Pearl, an ivory gem sprung from the oysters.
There are few surprises in Reeves' screenplay, and dialogue is sometimes drowned in Aussie patois, but this is a movie with great local color. One major flaw is the twisted dog-napping by Jack, who, ironically, turns out to be more primitive than the ostensibly antediluvian natives. The dog's fate turns a joke into a disturbing subplot. Excellent cinematography by Alun Bollinger-he was second-unit DP on two of the Lord of the Rings trilogy-corrects many of the film's weaknesses.
Veteran Jim Norton (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Into the West) in a minor role is a delightful scene-stealer, as are Reeves' women. They're a slant on the stereotypes. Trish (Kerry Armstrong), the mature married gal who would ordinarily be a civilizing influence, is part savage, a lusty broad with a talent for calming the oysters. Her younger counterpart, Pearl, is hardly a blushing gamine, although she does remain strangely innocent, untouched by the wrong Jack commits against her. Both women belong to that primeval side of Australia Oyster Farmer so cheerfully celebrates.