The Castle is an unusual favourite film for a Pakistani-Australian engineer and part-time taxi driver. At least that’s what I thought growing up, when my dad would quote it endlessly, and force us to sit down and watch it whenever it was being aired on TV. At times I couldn’t figure out if he was shaping his personality around the main character, Michael Caton’s Darryl Kerrigan, or if he was drawn to him because they already had so much in common.
When my parents moved to Australia in 1992, they couldn’t afford a working car – new or second-hand. The best they could do was buy two beaten-up and non-functional Datsun 120Ys for $400.
Why two? Because even though neither of the cars ran, their problems were complementary. One had a working engine but a rusted and broken chassis. The other had a solid chassis but a busted engine. They were basically being offered up as scrap metal, but Dad – in a very Kerrigan-esque manner – figured he could buy both, convince the neighbours in our apartment block to lend us their garage space, hit up a mechanic mate for the right equipment and conduct his own engine transplant. Which he did. And that’s how our family got our first car.
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Thinking about these kinds of stories, and the animated way my dad would tell them time and time again, helped me realise it wasn’t really that unusual for a man like my dad to love The Castle. Over time, I came to understand why people like him would relate to a story of a multiracial, multi-gender, multi-generational alliance of working-class Australians taking on elites, even if on the surface the central Kerrigan family had little in common with us.
But what’s fascinated me the most about The Castle over the years is how universally praised it is by Australians across class, social and political lines.
Unusual for any kind of Australian comedy, let alone a mainstream blockbuster, the 1997 film has a blunt critique of the economic ideology that swept the West, including Australia, in the 1980s and 1990s. What drives The Castle’s narrative is the battle of the Kerrigans and their neighbours against a government corporation called Airlink, which is seeking to expand the airport in order to boost its profits. It’s revealed that Airlink is backed by a shadowy group of investors.
It’s David versus Goliath, it’s the everyman versus the big corporations, it’s one family versus a rigged legal system. The stakes are set.
But The Castle takes things a step further. When Darryl expresses confusion at the apparent collusion between what appears to be a government organisation in Airlink, and the private investors the Barlow Group, his suburban lawyer, Dennis Denuto, explains: “The Barlow Group is Airlink. It’s government authority, but the money’s coming from the Barlow Group . . . It’s a way of privatising without privatising . . . They wrote the rules. They own the game.”
Now, at this point, the tension in the film has already been established. We already know who the heroes and the villains are. But now, we get a new bad guy. It’s not just the government. It’s not just the Barlow Group. It’s pure capitalism. It’s neoliberalism. It’s a doctrine about the state’s steady withdrawal from society, with its functions replaced by the private market.
It’s an incredible shift. It doesn’t change the narrative arc of the film, but it does elevate the stakes. Now the Kerrigans are fighting ideology itself – the most powerful ideology in human history.
However, The Castle’s portrayal of race issues is . . . messy, to say the least. The only non-European character in the film is Darryl’s neighbour Farouk, a Lebanese-Australian with an apparent background in explosives. It’s not exactly a subtle or complex portrayal.
Intriguingly, The Castle was written and produced in the aftermath of the Mabo High Court case, and the film doesn’t hide the fact that it sees Darryl’s attempt to rebuff the government as a direct parallel to the fightback against terra nullius. At one point Darryl even says, pointedly, “This country has got to stop stealing other people’s land!”
There are two ways to interpret this. The more generous reading is that The Castle is using the airport dispute as a kind of Trojan horse to get middle Australia to feel more sympathetically towards First Nations people. The other is that it’s a shameless exploitation of invasion, land theft and genocide to make a few gags. Either way, Darryl’s apparent sympathy for Mabo is probably his strongest character trait.
The moments of the film that made people like my dad fall in love with it – the solidarity across individuals and communities of so many different backgrounds – are genuine. And they provide a glimpse into the kind of Australia this place could be, if we wanted it.
This is an edited extract from Melbourne on Film: Cinema That Defines Our City ($34.99), published by Melbourne International Film Festival and Black Inc. It marks the 70th year of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) and features essays by some of the city’s favourite writers, including Christos Tsiolkas, John Safran, Judith Lucy and Osman Faruqi. Available now in bookstores.
Explore the festival’s program at miff.com.au.