Revisiting Parklands, a bittersweet slice of ’90s Adelaide noir

Starring a young Cate Blanchett in her first film role, writer-director Kathryn Millard’s 1996 film Parklands remains a surprisingly evergreen — and very Adelaide — reflection on memory and place.

Jun 16, 2021, updated Jun 16, 2021
The young Cate Blanchett in Parklands. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive / Helen Bowden

The young Cate Blanchett in Parklands. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive / Helen Bowden

Parklands opens with sprinklers and birdsong, shots of a lush and manicured Botanic Gardens, and a ’90s model Holden idling by. It’s all very quiet and genteel – until the Commodore bursts into flames. Something, it seems, is rotten in the state of South Australia.

Blanchett’s Rosie enters by airplane a moment later, staring out the window as it makes its descent over a skyline still capped by the Santos building. She cuts a familiar figure: another 20-something who has fled Adelaide for Sydney, only to be drawn back by a death in the family – that of her father, a policeman. An uncomfortable conversation at the wake, followed by the discovery of his old journals, sets Rosie on a slow-burning investigation into the “secrets and shadows” of his life and death.

“Adelaide’s my hometown, I moved to Sydney while this film was in development and came back to make it,” Kathryn Millard says over the phone. “I have enormous affection for Adelaide – I think you can say things about your hometown that you wouldn’t let other people say.”

Director Kathryn Millard. Photo: Lorrie Graham

The possible sins of the father bring moments of suspense, but early signs that Parklands could go full “murder capital” are a something of a fakeout; Millard is far more interested in Rosie’s memories than any big reveal. “I like films that just tilt at or borrow from noir, or the quest, or the essay, or the investigation,” she explains. “Parklands becomes an investigation of Rosie’s relationship to place, and her hometown and how she remembers it.”

As Rosie sifts through her father’s past, so does the film’s gaze, with her memories spliced in between clips of old 1950s newsreels – what Millard regards as a kind of “collective memory” – featuring the Christmas Pageant, Flower Day, and promotional footage of a shiny new suburb called Elizabeth. Their saturated palette blends into her own recollections, adding a sense of unreality as present-day revelations put it all in a new light (“I wanted a sense of the present and the past crossing over each other,” Millard says).

The result is a slow, quiet film teeming with recognisable imagery: golden sunsets over the used car lots on Main North Road, the neon lights of Hindley Street, the driveways and flowerbeds of suburbia, the long flat tide at Semaphore.

Recognisable imagery: A scene filmed at Semaphore.

“For me, Adelaide itself has special qualities of light and atmosphere,” Millar says. “Its distinctive clear light, the heat haze in the distance, the slow sunsets of summer.”

The film was warmly received at the time. Margaret Pomeranz called it an “elusive, tantalising story” on SBS’s The Movie Show, praising the work of cinematographer Mandy Walker (who later shot Lantana, Australia and Mulan) and a “standout performance” from Carmel Johnson as Jean, Rosie’s father’s new partner. And, of course, the “exciting new talent” of Cate Blanchett, who would make her international breakthrough with Elizabeth two years later (the film’s crew also included Blanchett’s future husband and collaborator Andrew Upton on continuity and dialogue duties).

“Obviously Cate Blanchett is an extraordinarily accomplished actor,” Millard says of Blanchett, who was unable to provide comment due to her current production schedule. “I cast her in Parklands very early in her career, [and] it was fantastic to work with her. I cast her on the basis of her work in theatre – she had graduated from NIDA and already made a significant impact in theatre.”

Cate Blanchett and Carmel Johnson in Parklands.

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“It was lovely working with Cate,” says Carmel Johnson, who is currently performing in State Theatre Company’s The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race. “She had just finished doing the television series with Ernie Dingo [Heartland], and she was just lovely and fresh and in for the work.

“I went to the opening in Adelaide and people weren’t over the top about it, but they liked it,” she recalls, saying that local opinions improved once Pomeranz’s review aired. “After that, after it was recognised outside of Adelaide, people started to talk about it and they loved the colour and liked the whole idea of it.”

Difficult to view legally, today Parklands exists largely as a footnote on Blanchett’s IMDB page.

“In the last few years there have been more requests to view Parklands and interest in restoring it,” says Millard, who, along with Parklands’ producer Helen Bowden, made one more Adelaide-based film, 2003’s Travelling Light starring Pia Miranda, before focussing on academia and documentary. “That’s something I would like to do – 16mm doesn’t always fare very well in storage.”

But 25 years later, its themes of memory, place and homecoming – not to mention its striking aesthetic – retain their poignancy, sitting neatly alongside recent work like last year’s film adaptation of Jane Harper’s The Dry, or Adelaide-born author Victoria Hannan’s novel Kokomo.

A Commodore bursts into flames in the opening scenes.

For a millennial audience, its vision of 1990s Adelaide carries a gentle metatextuality; like the city of Rosie’s childhood, the one I grew up in is faintly recognisable in Parklands. But there’s an air of melancholy, the kind of subtext that tends to sit just outside the aperture of one’s early memories – less Grand Prix and Dazzeland, more State Bank collapse and NCA bombing. Certainly, the flaming Commodore lands differently years after the Elizabeth Holden factory was shuttered.

“I was devastated to come back to Adelaide and see that the Gouger Street Fish Café was no more,” Millard says of another forgotten landmark featured in the film. “It had the most fantastic décor. It was a very popular cafe so we had to make an arrangement to film through the night in order not to disrupt their schedule. I’m really glad that we did capture it.”

Blanchett’s Rosie in the Gouger Street Fish Café.

The film ends with more flames, as Rosie sits in the sand at Semaphore and sets fire to a tin of papers that might reveal her father’s secrets. Her family, like her hometown, has contradictions that can’t easily be resolved in 50 minutes, or a lifetime.

Those titular Parklands become a symbol for this ambiguity, a site of dualities and contested meanings that reveal themselves to us over time. Are they a sunny, family-friendly picnic spot, or a place for gripping keys between fingers when walking back to the car at night? A green belt representing a moment of inspired Victorian-era town planning, or another colonial construct imposed upon unceded Kaurna Yerta? Perhaps it’s all of the above, and more.

“Our relationship to place is complex,” Millard reflects. “A place that you love and know well can have happy and pleasant associations and others that are darker — that’s all part of knowing a place intimately.”

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