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The Furnace

Peter Malone MSC  |  21 December 2020

THE FURNACE. Australia, 2020. Starring Ahmad Malek, David Wenham, Baykali Ganambarr, Jay Ryan, Samson Coulter, Erik Thomson, Mansoor Noor, Trevor Jamieson. Directed by Roderick MacKay. 116 minutes, Rated MA (Strong themes and violence).

As we watch The Furnace, many of us in the audience will realise that we are in a world, in a story of Australian history, with which we are not particularly familiar. Which means that the film makes a considerable contribution to the widening of our horizons and our awareness of Australian history.

The time is 1897. The place is Western Australia – and beyond Kalgoorlie. There are gold mines, especially at Mount Magnet. There are avid miners. There is the local constabulary, ready on horseback, to maintain order and to right wrongs. Mines are robbed. Thieves travel across the desert to a remote homestead, home to Chinese who have a special furnace to melt the gold and reshape it without the Royal seal.

There are wandering First Nations tribes, stories told about massacres, about pursuits, about tribes to disappearing into the vast land.

But, it is also the world of the cameleers, men who have come from Afghanistan, India –Muslims and Sikhs – who transport the loads through the desert with that strangest of imports, the camel. In fact, the central character of this story is a young Afghani, Hanif (played by an Egyptian actor, Ahmad Malek), far from home, conscious of his father’s expectations of him, working with fellow cameleers, but in many ways, lonely and thinking about his returning home. He does have regular work. He does have a working companion. And he has good friend, Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr who made such an impression in The Nightingale), a young Indigenous boy – who bonds with him even more strongly when they are confronted by two white men wanting water, who first threaten and then shoot. The shooter is killed by a spear.

This sets the scene. However, the main part of the story is a journey. Hanif encounters a white man, Mal (David Wenham), who is part of the gang which has stolen gold from Mount Magnet. Wenham is always a striking screen presence, and is very much so here, sometimes laid-back and cautious, other times ambitious to get the gold to the Chinese furnace, sometimes haunted by death, which appears in his imaginings. His companions on the robbery have all been killed. Hanif agrees to go with him and their journey becomes a trek. A wary friendship grows up between the two; Mal having been wounded and needing care, Hanif mystified but wondering if the gold will help him return home.

And, in the meantime, the constabulary is out, and demanding sergeant in charge (Jay Ryan), his son one of the troopers. Eventually they track down the thieves and arrive at the Chinese house and furnace.

The action does not go as might have been expected, making demands on Mal, making demands on Hanif, who wonders where his future will lie, here in Australia, in the towns, with the other cavaliers, or, perhaps, returning to Woorak and the Indigenous tribe.

This is a first-time feature written and directed by Roderick MacKay. The settings and scenery are particularly distinctive, often beautiful, often treacherous. There are reminders of stories from the American West. However, the film is distinctively Australian, in characters, language and issues.

Umbrella Films
Released 10 December
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of Jesuit Media.


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