Tomorrow When The War Began (12A) Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Stuart Beattie, Australia/US, 2010, 104 mins

Cast:  Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd Wood, Lincoln Lewis,

Review by Carol Allen

I’m not sure how well known John Marsden’s Tomorrow books are in UK but they have been a huge hit with young readers in Marsden’s native Australia since first published in the nineties, making him a sort of Australian Philip Pullman figure.

Judging on this film of the first book in the series, I suspect, like Pullman, he might be a good read for adults as well. The movie is written and directed by Stuart Beattie, who’s made good in Hollywood as the writer of such films as Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl and Collateral and returns here to his native Australia to make his very creditable directing debut.   . 

The 17 year old protagonists, who are all neatly and clearly introduced to us at the beginning of the film, are not the self and sex obsessed, whinging teens of your typical high school movie. The central character and narrator is Ellie (Stasey), who decides to organise one last camping trip into the bush before the summer ends and it’s back to school time. She persuades her parents to let her borrow the family land rover and gets her group together. There’s her best friend  Corrie (Hurd-Wood) and Corrie’s new boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis); the very pretty but wildly insecure Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin); Ellie’s long term, Greek immigrant chum Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), who’s a bit of a bad boy rebel; straight-laced, religious Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) and Lee (Chris Pang), whose parents run the local Thai restaurant and for whom Ellie nurses a secret liking, which is mutual and confusing for both of them.

The destination for their trip is a remote and as it turns out rather beautiful spot which is known locally as Hell and, compared to what is about to happen, turns out to be a little bit of heaven. The first intimation the group has that all is not well in the outside world is when they see fleets of warplanes in the sky. When they get back home to the small rural town that is their home, everything has changed. Their homes are deserted, the power has been cut off, Ellie’s beloved dog is dead. When they go into town they discover that Australia has been invaded by a foreign army and all the townspeople are being held in a concentration camp. At first confused and frightened, like the cowardly Lion in “Oz” the group eventually find their courage and decide to conduct their own guerrilla war against the invaders, recruiting along the way an initially useless dope head Chris (Andrew Ryan), who eventually too finds his guerrilla guts.

As a tale for young people struggling with the age old adolescent challenge of moving from childhood dependence on parents to independent young adulthood, this is a gutsy fantasy which tunes in to that question we all ask, but particularly when young – faced with an extreme situation, how would I measure up?. The characters are likeable, proactive, ingenious and flawed.  Kevin for example turns out not to be, initially at least, the sexy hero that Corrie sees him as. There are good action scenes, as in a tense sequence where the group are trapped in a house, surrounded by the enemy and towards the end, when they plan to blow up the bridge which is the invaders’ supply line.  

The enemy itself is never named, though being a film as opposed to a novel, its soldiers now have to have a face, which appears to be Oriental. The film doesn’t neglect though to recognise the humanity of that enemy. After killing a young soldier, Ellie is distressed to realise that this young woman is about the same age as she is.  And the little we learn about the reason for the invading forces’ motivation, that they feel it’s time for Australia (and by implication the developed world generally) to share its riches with others less fortunate, is not an unsympathetic one.

 The film also leaves quiet space for the characters to develop their relationships. The emerging feelings of Lee and Ellie for each other are well handled, Phoebe Tonkin is particularly good as Fiona, who despite her prettiness doesn’t believe she can ever be attractive to boys, and even though Ellie is always at the centre of the action, all the actors get a chance to show their paces. Adults don’t get much of a look in, though there’s a good cameo from Colin Friels as a cowardly dentist, who comes out of hiding to give a wounded member of the gang first aid and then scuttles back to his lair. But this is a film about young people, forced to grow up very quickly under pressure.   There’s a shot of the group at the end of the film, now confident young men and women,  armed to the teeth and looking like a cross between Che Guevara’s guerrillas and Mad Max, which not only throws forward to the expected sequel, but brings home how much the characters have changed since the beginning of the story.