The Hunter

Daniel Nettheim's acclaimed adaptation screens as part of the International Mammalogical Congress at Queen’s

In 1999 the publication of Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s The Hunter was met with widespread critical acclaim. It was a Notable Book of the Year in the New York Times and Leigh herself was singled out as ‘a writer for the next millennium’ by The Observer. ‘Reinventing Hemingway’ was how The Guardian described her debut offering.

Mysterious, atmospheric and gothic, Leigh’s novel was deemed a modern classic. The celluloid version, originally released in 2011, might not be deserving of such plaudits, but it is nonetheless a stylish and quietly interesting study of mankind’s wanton disregard for the value of the natural world.

The film is to be shown at Queen’s Film Theatre on August 15 as part of the International Mammalogical Congress at Queen’s University – an event bringing together conservationists from around the world. It is a fitting work, with conservationism and the fate of endangered species being at the very core of an impressive adaptation.

The Hunter begins, briefly, in an anonymous European locale. As it turns out, Willem Dafoe’s taciturn mercenary Martin David is in Paris to meet with the representatives of shadowy military biotech corporation Red Leaf. As he sternly dismisses his paymaster’s imploration to see the Parisian sights – ‘I’m here to work’ – it becomes clear that this is a man singularly focused on the task at hand.

Dispatched to Tasmania to seek and kill the elusive Tasmanian Tiger – long considered extinct – for the purpose of securing its genetic code, David shows himself to be a fascinating character. He is cold without being rude, intelligent rather than cunning. Whatever training he has received has rendered him resourceful and professional, yet he is never presented as a merciless killer.

The reasons behind his mission are never fully explained, but its dark tentacles appear to be all around him as he enters an alien land. And it is in the land itself that the film finds a true centre. This is no antipodean bush adventure. Instead lush grasslands, verdant forests and great rivers pepper the screen.

From spectacular plateaus to snowy hilltops, director Daniel Nettheim and cinematographer Robert Humphreys brilliantly capture the Tasmanian landscape’s wonderful ambience: all faded greys and washed-out greens. The sense of an impending mist or fog is never far away, and in this environment David thrives. He is no survivalist, yet he understands and exploits the landscape around him.

His experience is not one of endurance in the face of harsh conditions, however. His hunting trips are increasingly punctuated by returns to his home base and the family with whom he is quartered. In the presence of Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her soulful children, David’s cool exterior slowly thaws.

Heartbroken by the recent loss of her husband, Lucy is heavily medicated and emotionally crippled. While the children do not lack for love, they do crave attention. Ironically, the arrival into their world of a man apparently concerned only with himself is the making of them.

David's patient, steady presence in their ramshackle house proves to be a godsend, and Dafoe revels in the subtle transformation through which David must go. While he is initially bemused by the domestic situation, he is never cruel nor overly impatient.

As a man who has eschewed family life, his actions are free from the constraints of tact or diplomacy, and in silently taking charge of a chaotic situation he gives Lucy and her children a base upon which to recover. It is an elegant, touching personal journey and one which ultimately bleeds into the choices David will make before his assignment ends.

It is puzzling then that in the face of its generally ambiguous tone Nettheim would elect, in his conclusion, to depart from the novel. Leigh's book ended with a degree of understatement. Yet here the story embraces both sudden, perhaps unnecessary tragedy and clumsy saccharinity; one being the natural consequence of the other. Unfortunately, the finale is just too big a leap to make.

That being said, this remains compelling stuff. The triumphant photography and high quality acting – Sam Neill, too, lends his ever excellent presence to the small cast – greatly compensate for any pitfalls in the narrative. The themes of man versus nature and nature’s own duel with economic hardship (and necessity) develop without melodrama, and it is in this that The Hunter ably pays homage to its source material.

The Hunter screens at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast at 6:40 pm on August 15 as part of the 11th International Mammalogical Congress at Queen’s University Belfast.