Sometimes a movie comes along that strikes a particular cultural chord within its own country and yet, despite wild popularity at home, makes absolutely no noise outside its borders, not even in culturally similar countries. Most often, this is the case with comedies, which tend to aim for popular local appeal over the sort of aesthetic or novelty considerations that typically snare the attention of the international critical and art-house movie crowds, which are key to gaining worldwide distribution. Rob Sitch's The Castle is one of these comedies; it made almost three times as much at the Australian box office as the second most popular national production that year, Shine, despite the latter receiving international acclaim and winning a Best Actor Oscar for Geoffrey Rush. The Castle ranks as the 33rd highest grossing Australian movie of all time at its domestic box office, with just over one-fifth the gross of the all-time leader, Crocodile Dundee (1986), and on par with popular worldwide titles like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and The Piano (1993). But, on the list of the top grossing Australian movies in the United States, it ranks a mere #79, with less than 1/10 of its domestic box office. Despite this lack of crossover appeal, The Castle is so beloved and iconic at home that its lead character topped a 2010 poll of which film character best-represents Australians, edging out Paul Hogan's more widely known 'Crocodile' Dundee.
The Castle stars Michael Caton as Darryl Kerrigan, the patriarch of a putatively typical working class Australian family. While the Kerrigans lack sophistication, they are optimistic and loyal and generous and loving, and are fiercely proud of their modest family home, which is separated by a chain-link fence from the Melbourne Municipal Airport. When the city plans to update and expand the facility, the Kerrigan household is one of many hit with an order of "compulsory evacuation" to make room for new construction. Sensing the violation of a deep Australian principle, Darryl and a few resistant neighbors band together to fight the orders, pitting them against savvy businessmen, lawyers and judges who speak a legal language the likes of the Kerrigans simply don't understand.
I'm always a little uneasy with comedies wherein the primary source of humor is looking down at the unfashionable tastes of "lower classes," and there's a lot of that in The Castle. They have funny hair — one son has an awful mullet and the daughter has tall bangs — and consider a diploma from hairdresser school an achievement in higher education; they are impressed by ordinary foods, they wear track suits, and they always turn the TV volume down during dinner… Even when it's done affectionately like it is here, and with a fair amount of wit and good timing, there's a snobbishness being exploited that leaves a sour taste. Thematically, however, The Castle is a sort of down-under "Slobs vs. Snobs" comedy, with the Kerrigans' lack of worldliness being key to their exploitation by the authorities who take their claim to dispossess ordinary citizens for granted. Sitch firmly positions the narrative on the side of the Kerrigans and makes no hesitation about accentuating their many positive values, which just leaves the contradictions more unexamined than I would like. Is this a movie for Australians to laugh at themselves; or is it for knowing Australians to laugh at their uncouth neighbors (I'm not sure The Kerrigans, themselves, would find it funny)? Or does it afford middle-class Australians the opportunity to feign a condescending alliance with an idealized version of the lower class for a rare sympathetic instance despite otherwise sharing in the ridicule of lower class cultural markers?
All of that is more serious than anything The Castle is interested in exploring, which may be a weakness for me, but it still works as a satisfying straight-forward David-vs-Goliath play, which is probably a big part of why it resonates so strongly with a nation of "outsiders." The Castle is never too-smart or remotely edgy or, I suspect, anywhere close to realistic about how this kind of situation might play out in real life. It's a low-effort crowd-pleaser about characters worth rooting for, who reflect a fantasy of the best that people can be, not only without any frills, but even as the butt of the joke. Darryl's wholesome love for his wife and his kids' unquestioning adoration for their family are rare commodities in popular movies, and they are affecting here.
If The Castle had been able to breakthrough into the international market it would've been alongside similar quirky English-language imports with working class underdog stories of the era like The Snapper (1993), The Van (1996), The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000) — maybe it was just crowded out of an overstuffed market — but even those surprise sleeper hits had some aesthetic sophistication that seems outside the reach of Sitch's debut feature. Ironically, maybe, with its very plain and remedial TV-style look and the lack of challenging ideas in its narrative, The Castle is sort of 'The Kerrigans' of movies, lacking the sophistication to warrant notice outside of its meagre comfort zone. That's another interesting anomaly in The Castle: it's not, ultimately, about the Kerrigans bettering themselves or being transformed in any way by their experience; their victory is in their modest stasis— and for the Kerrigans, and Australia in its popular self-conception, that seems to approximate perfection.