One day. One life. One chance.
In Fitzroy, north of Melbourne’s CBD, another day is brewing and twelve locals will intersect with each other around a bustling block of shops. Amongst the residents are gruff pawnshop owner Les Underwood (John Brumpton), his shy assistant Danny Williams (Damian Hill), Danny’s crush — charming bookshop employee Kate (Maeve Dermody) — and bored bludgers Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) and Pauly (Mark Coles Smith).
Let me begin by stating how refreshing it is to see the everyday Melbourne I know in the cinema. While perfectly well-shot by cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, making his feature debut, it’s not particularly glamorous or exciting, but I identify with it immediately.
The idea of identification with the landscape is a particular that has, at times, been something of a wedge between the more popularized on-screen Australia — think rural, desert, ‘outback’ versus the more populated off-screen Australia as in suburban multicultural hubs. In this regard Pawno will likely have many residential Australians nodding their heads in recognition of the overall feeling evoked with its background and smirking at the familiar Aussie archetypes.
Let me stress that word for a moment — ‘archetypes.’ Another great aspect of lead actor/writer Damian Hill’s screenplay and Paul Ireland’s assured direction is that while their characters are plucked from the familiar, they are not running the expected stereotypical course of action.
The best example of this would have to be the slackers Carlo and Pauly. So easily their trajectory could’ve been one of sleazy antics, conning people as all-round annoying street trash. Instead, Hill uses them as a middle ground between the polished world of Kate’s bookshop and the more roughened pawnshop, where Danny resides. They act as a bit of fresh air between those two characters and their sweetly realized slow-burning romance, rather than the dirty crooks one might expect them to be.
Oddly enough, when we do actually encounter the film’s most fearsome antagonist — Jason Spears, played by Brad McMurray, Blood Money (2012) — he is the stereotypical thug, straight out of the likes of gangster TV series Underbelly (2008 – 2013). His whole scene is easily the weakest point of the film, playing out in an over-the-top violent and sweary way, almost derailing the strong, assured presence of pawnshop owner Les. It honestly felt as though director Ireland had just watched the infamous elevator scene in Drive (2011) for the first time and just had to appropriate it somehow. I will say however, that John Brumpton’s performance as Les is a knockout and the key reason as to why his character still remains likable after this horribly overdone scene.
Another weakness in Pawno is that it occasionally struggles to justify the presence of its smaller characters. As one example, much setup and star-billing goes into Kerry Armstrong’s Jennifer Montgomery, a suffering mother looking for her runaway son, but she only has one good scene with Les and that’s it, minus the unnecessary bookends. There are a couple more that play out in this way — setting up the characters in their own environment, giving them one good scene in the pawnshop or elsewhere, before practically discarding their existence. It’s clear that Paul Ireland and Damian Hill wanted to realize an ensemble piece, but stripped back to fewer characters, Pawno could play better.
It’s in light of this, I can say that Pawno is a solid home-grown film with enough warmth and humor to make it worthy of a watch, even if it could’ve been a ‘ripper’ with a bit more refinement.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
Pawno is released through Mind Blowing World