Smash Palace

Roger Donaldson | New Zealand | 1982

1981 Cannes
1982 Toronto

Smash Palace Poster

Smash Palace is the Kiwi cinema classic which launched director Roger Donaldson’s international career. Al Shaw (a brilliant, brooding Bruno Lawrence) is a racing car driver who now runs a car wrecker’s yard in the shadow of Mount Ruapehu. His French wife Jacqui is unhappy there and leaves him, taking up with Al’s best mate. When she restricts Al’s access to his young daughter, his frustration explodes and he goes bush with the girl, desperate not to lose her too. Completed in a rush, the tale of a marriage breaking down was praised as ‘amazingly accomplished’ by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.
– NZ On Screen.

Breakdowns come in different kinds – mechanical, communication, marriage, mental. In Smash Palace they all come together and they are all closely linked. The result is a film that marks a great upward leap in our development as a film-making country.

Five years ago, in Sleeping Dogs, Roger Donaldson showed that he understood the cinematic use of movement, tension, dramatic surprise, sentiment and natural humour. All these elements are present again in Smash Palace – but refined, polished, fitted together with such subtlety that they make what can only be described as a mature piece of craftsmanship. Like Geoff Murphy, who featured it in Goodbye Pork Pie, Donaldson has evidently been struck by the sad metaphor in the rusting junk pile of smashed cars at Horopito. Murphy seemed to see it as some kind of comment on the state of our civilisation. Donaldson takes a more personal, human view of this wasteland of useless bodies, spare parts and broken dreams. Right in the centre he places Al Shaw – racing car driver, expert mechanic, admirer of the grace and engineering skill in old vehicles. So obsessed has Al become with his attachment to this derelict wilderness (a legacy from his father, the original owner) that he values it more highly than the love of his French wife, Jacqui. Not surprisingly, Jacqui looks elsewhere for affection. She finds it in the arms of Ray Foley, the local policeman. It is a sign of Donaldson’s maturity as a writer/director that he has made Foley’s friendship as necessary to Al as it is to Jacqui. That makes him not just the conventional ‘other man’. He represents the New Zealand ethic of mateship. Because of him the breakdown of the marriage is that much more traumatic for everyone – but particularly Al.

The complicating factor in these relationships is Al and Jacqui’s daughter Georgie. Born and brought up at ‘Smash Palace’ (Donaldson’s brilliant name for the graveyard) Georgie accepts it without question as her home; just as she regards her father unquestioningly as a great racing driver and a great companion. When Jacqui finally tells Al she is leaving him she says she will take Georgie with her. That is the last straw. The fact that Ray Foley has moved into his bed has made Al behave irrationally. The loss of Georqie sends him right round the bend, at least temporarily. Grabbing his daughter he heads for the bush. To resolve the situation he’s created, Donaldson uses a lightness and sureness of touch combined with a sense of urgency and a sense of humour. That is what gives Smash Palace its hallmark of maturity.

No one has ever given New Zealand films 10 out of 10 for sophistication. Certainly not for their screenplay, however high they may score technically. Technicians have gained experience the hard way – in the highly skilled, uncompromisingly professional world of TV commercials and similar work. Writers have had fewer opportunities, but in any case film-making in New Zealand has always been such an intensely personal business that directors have tended to be their own scriptwriters. So that often, while the camera may have been lyrical, honest or sensitive, the dialogue and story have been woefully naive. Smash Palace could well be the turning-point.

Here, for the first time, a New Zealand small town is recognisable as a place rather than a location. It is not just a row of shopfronts along a dispirited main street. It is a place where the entertainers at a local hop are old-timers who yodel with more enthusiasm than skill. It is a place where you can see the kind of people you know from personal encounter. It is a place where the kids on the street react with genuine scorn to a reprimand from a passing cop. To me, that conveys a new sense of sophistication in our films. Clearly Donaldson understands that it is not enough to shoot actors performing against a familiar landscape for us to nudge each other with the shock of recognition. It takes more than that to make us aware of the nature and the meaning of the country we live in.

Smash Palace never misses a trick. The child’s compulsive flicking of a torch – on, off, on, off – as she listens to her parents arguing is a moment of heartbreaking drama. The anguish of a shop assistant kidnapped at gunpoint is not only natural reaction to violence – it’s also frantic anxiety at the loss of a hair appointment. The tension in the final shot shatters into explosive laughter through the brilliant use of what was once a staple ingredient of Mack Sennett comedy. Smash Palace is full of such ingenious touches. They indicate a professionalism, a sophistication and a maturity in Roger Donaldson that have already earned him worldwide recognition; but they do not seem to have made him yearn for the opportunity to find wider scope for his talents. Cinema gold is no longer exclusively in them thar Beverley Hills. It glints as brightly in the dawn silhouette of Mount Ruapehu.

Bruno Lawrence’s performance as Al Shaw has brought him fame as a ‘best actor’ and as a symbol of rugged virility. In his own way he plays an ordinary bloke: the kind who’s down at the pub with his mates, tinkering with car engines, giving his daughter a good time – while the little woman yawns her head off in the kitchen and dreams of dinner at a posh restaurant. As the wife Anna Jemison is cool, seething and teasing. She has to retain audience sympathy while behaving with provocative, albeit desperate foolishness. Charm and intelligence work in her favour. Her French accent is one of the film’s most subtly telling touches – a trace of foreign precise speech is enough. As Ray Foley, the policeman and the other man, Keith Aberdein is thoroughly convincing in his reluctant ardour, his irritable concern at Al’s obtuseness. And Des Kelly etches a nice picture of a loyal employee trying to make both sides see reason in a typically unreasonable domestic row. But it is Greer Robson as Georgie, the child, who holds much of the picture together – the bone of contention as well as the one remaining shared link neither Al or Jacqui is prepared to give up. Actors are repeatedly warned not to appear with animals or children. In Greer Robson you see exactly why. All the more credit to the adults that teamwork has obviously been the order of the day.

Graeme Cowley’s photography is splendid – always in character, never indulging in scenery for its own sake, enhancing many of the dramatic moments without ever letting the camera make its presence felt. Sharon O’Neill’s music is another unobtrusive plus in the total excellence of this really first-class movie. If there are more New Zealand films like this due for release in 1982 our international reputation may not be entirely dependent on how well our team acquits itself at World Cup in Spain.
– Peter Harcourt, Sequence, March 1982.

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