Film review: The Sapphires has a lot of soul

Yvonne Teh

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 8:46am

The Sapphires

Starring: Deborah Mailman, Chris O'Dowd, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy

Director: Wayne Blair

Category: IIA


First-time director Wayne Blair's The Sapphires was the most successul Australian film of last year and received a 10-minute standing ovation at its out-of-competition screening during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

A coming-of-age period piece about four young Australian Aboriginal women - who, like the rest of their people, were classified as "flora and fauna" on government census forms prior to 1967 - and an Irishman who shares their love of music, it doesn't shy away from tackling sensitive issues, even while being a genuine crowd-pleaser.

Inspired by a true story (involving co-scriptwriter Tony Briggs' mother and three of her relatives), the film takes place against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam and a largely racist rural 1960s Australia. Yet this is a musical comedy-drama that gets spirits soaring - partly because of its soulful soundtrack, and partly because it tells a tale of sweet triumph against the odds.

Before they became The Sapphires, the four young women performed as The Cummeragunja Songbirds, a name that referenced their remote homelands on the New South Wales-Victoria border.

And before they were a singing group, this quartet was "just" three musically talented sisters - feisty Gail (Deborah Mailman), generally friendlier Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and the precocious Julie (Jessica Mauboy) - and their fair-skinned cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens).

Kay is one of the stolen generation of Aboriginal children who were forcibly taken from their families to live in the city with white strangers in accordance with accepted government practice of the day.

The Sapphires begins with country and western music-loving Gail and Cynthia entering a talent show in a nearby town. But they meet with ambivalence from almost everyone present, except a young boy mesmerised by their singing, and Dave (Chris O'Dowd), the event's emcee and occasional piano accompanist.

Undaunted by the response, Gail, Cynthia and youngest sister Julie decide to aim higher by auditioning for a chance to perform for the troops in Vietnam. At the suggestion of family members, they also invite their estranged cousin Kay to join them.

The Sapphires expectedly ace their audition and win their way to Vietnam - for, in truth, this feel-good film contains few surprises when it comes to plot or story. Instead, the likeable movie's high points come courtesy of the images and the performances.

The main characters have great chemistry with one another, and the four lead actresses have the ability to belt out soul classics in a manner that does the Motown greats proud.

The Sapphires opens on June 13