Saturday, March 25

Vale David Dalaithngu: the inimitable actor who changed the movies and changed us | Films

IIn the 1976 classic Storm Boy, the great Yolŋu actor David Dalaithngu delivers a line that was immortalized in Australian cinema. “Bird like him never dies,” he says, describing the pelican Mr. Percival.

The substance of that line can be applied to the man himself, who will live through the light and shadow of the cinema, on which he left a permanent and inimitable impression.

David Dalaithngu, Luc Roeg and Jenny Agutter in Walkabout 1971
David Dalaithngu, Luc Roeg and Jenny Agutter in Walkabout in 1971. Photograph: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

For all the language we use to describe the movies, there are really no words to accurately articulate how Dalaithngu changed the movies and how it changed us. The actor passed away on Monday, having been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. As I said in my review of his latest film, the incredible Molly Reynolds documentary, it was like “a portal to a different way of thinking, a different way of being. , even a different state of consciousness ”.

Dalaithngu’s breakthrough role was in British director Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 hallucinogenic film Walkabout, in which two young white brothers (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) roam the interior after their father’s death. They meet Dalaithngu, who provides the emotional core of the drama with a warm, soulful, fresh-faced acting, and an irresistibly cheeky gleam in his eyes that never completely faded all those years later, even during his disease-ravaged final years. .

David Dalaithngu in the 1977 film The Last Wave
David Dalaithngu in 1977’s The Last Wave. Photograph: TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy

In the second half of the 70s, Dalaithngu appeared in other Australian New Wave classics. In Mad Dog Morgan he played the partner in crime of the titular bushranger, infamously played by Dennis Hopper. In Storm Boy, which adapted Colin Thiele’s classic children’s book, Dalaithngu was the enigmatic Fingerbone, reciting at one point a spiritual story about pelicans with the full weight of the film behind him: director Henri Safran cutting down trees, breaking waves and coming back. to the Dalaithngu dance, which was magical every time you saw it.

Continuing with the theme of water, which runs throughout his work, the actor played another mysterious character in Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, materializing from the protagonist’s dreams to reflect on how a “dream is a shadow of something real” .

Dalaithngu in The Tracker from 2002
Dalaithngu in The Tracker from 2002. Photograph: AF Archive / Alamy

Dalaithngu’s body of work is peppered with small but memorable performances. The clipped nature of many of his representations gives his work a fragmentary quality that, like this interview published in Film senses he testifies, it was also evident in his speech, his responses to questions were “often indirect and fragmentary”, but also “constantly making surprising connections”, with the ability at any moment to be “surprisingly lucid”.

It is a great shame to the Australian film industry, and a testament to its long-standing whiteness, that Dalaithngu has not been given more opportunities as a leading actor, which it so highly deserved. Rolf de Heer’s 2002 meatloaf western, The Tracker, was the first feature film to cast him as the lead; played the title character, accompanying the police as they make a slow journey through the desert in search of an accused murderer.

A more impressive production, with a richer and more expansive lead performance from Dalaithngu, was 2013’s Charlie’s Country, for which he won the best actor award at the 2014 Cannes film festival. De Heer made the film, which Dalaithngu co-wrote. , after visiting the actor in prison; Dalaithngu had been found guilty of assaulting his partner.

On several occasions, the late interpreter spoke about the abuse of alcohol and substances that occurred throughout his life, comparing beer to “put your brain in a freezer” and marijuana to “like a morning fog.”

During his visit to the prison, De Heer discovered that Dalaithngu was ill, frail and, as the filmmaker put it in an interview from 2015 – “seemed to have lost interest in life.” When he played a semi-autobiographical version of himself in Charlie’s Country, the cheeky gleam in Dalaithngu’s eyes had turned into something more profound, infused with seriousness and pathos.

Dalaithngu in Baz Luhrmann's 2008 film Australia
Dalaithngu in Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film Australia. Photograph: TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy

In another world, the film would have started a rebirth of Dalaithngu’s career, eventually leading to a period where he landed one lead role after another. It wasn’t meant to be.

His later work returned him to small roles, in films such as the zombie movie Cargo and the neo-Western Goldstone. His final performance in a narrative feature film, playing Finbergone Bill’s father in the 2019 Storm Boy remake, had a cyclical quality, evoking memories of an earlier and more triumphant time in his career.

If “bird like him, never die” were applied to David Dalaithngu, the bird form he would take would perhaps be a kingfisher. In the Molly Reynolds documentary, the actor explains that his name, which his family has asked not to be used for now, means “kingfisher.” That is why, as he explained, his name is in the trees, in the fish, in the sky, in the stars, in the storm.

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