The phrases “Tell him he’s dreamin’”, “That’s going straight to the pool room”, “How’s the serenity?” and “It’s the vibe” have become Aussie staples. These now-classic quotes all come from The Castle – voted the best Australian film ever in a recent poll.
The Castle was released in Australia 25 years go. It charmed the socks off us on its release and its reputation and influence as the quintessential Australian film have grown since.
Centred on an ordinary working class family, the Kerrigans, the film tells of their legal fight against greedy developers and the government when their house and land are threatened with a plan to extend an airport runway.
When his neighbours’ properties are also targeted, Darryl Kerrigan, the father, organises a protest committee. It hires perhaps the most inept suburban solicitor, Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora), to dispute the case in court - and fails. Dennis’s main defence is that
It’s the constitution. It’s Mabo. It’s justice. It’s law. It’s the vibe … no, that’s it, it’s the vibe.
It’s the vibe
Reputedly filmed over 11 days on a very small budget, it stars mostly television actors, or those who were at that time just emerging, such as Michael Caton, Anne Tenney, Stephen Curry, Eric Bana and Wayne Hope. It’s true the production values are ordinary at best and the visuals are uninspiring, but who cares? This all adds to the feeling of the familiar and very real world of the Kerrigans.
The best parts of the film are the characters, the exploration of family and most importantly, the naive and gentle humour expressed through the character’s dialogue.
The film is full of dad jokes that you just know Darryl tells over and over. From telling opposing lawyers to “suffer in their jocks”, or saying every cheap knick-knack they find is “going straight to the pool-room”, the humour is comprised of bad puns, repetitive gags and parochial sayings.
Darryl’s repetitive, good-natured bits, such as being amazed at every dinner that his wife makes, regardless of whether it’s just rissoles or chicken, is clearly meant to be humorous - but we don’t laugh at the Kerrigans, we laugh with them.
This is because the humour is all expressed through their glass half full view of the world. All of the Kerrigans have this eternal positivity and optimism. After losing the court case and facing eviction, they look for the good in it. Most people would be happy not to live next to a busy airport but Dale Kerrigan only sees the benefits, “It will be very convenient if we ever have to fly one day”.
Straight to the pool room
The Kerrigan values are similar to many working class Australians: anti-authoritarianism, the Aussie battler ethos, a sense of political antipathy, and a belief in common sense and that natural justice will prevail. This is why this film has endured over so many years - Australians recognise themselves in the characters.
The Kerrigans are just ordinary people who find delight in their ordinariness. Darryl works the tow-truck, they have little money, their house is built on a landfill site and their eldest son is in prison. They go on holiday - not to Bali or Hawaii, but to Bonnie Doon, a little country town with a small lake and a shack that Darryl built amongst towering electricity pylons. A place many people would run a mile from.
Again, the family don’t see this as a negative. As Dale says wisely, “Dad, he reckons power-lines are a reminder of man’s ability to generate electricity”.
The Castle embraces an A Current Affair mentality - that someone, somewhere in business or in government is always trying to rip-off the honest little guy. Darryl Kerrigan represents all the honest, hard working Australian battlers who have been done over by forces greater than them. We all want to see the tables turned and the little guy win - this is why underdog stories such as this are so popular.
Dale has dug a hole
But The Castle goes beyond such simple classifications. The events portrayed are just a sideline to the family dynamics – the bond of family and community in every situation, good and bad, is paramount to the film.
Every Kerrigan supports each other and celebrates their achievements no matter how small, such as the pride they have in Dale having dug a hole. Even if the Kerrigans aren’t like your family, you secretly wish they were.
How deeply embedded the characters and dialogue are in the Australian psyche can be demonstrated is one anecdote. The real Bonnie Doon shack was listed for sale in 2011. The estate agent was inundated with people calling asking for the price. When told, they universally replied, “Tell him he’s dreamin’”.