PVirtually every Australian has a favorite line from The Castle. For some, it’s the serenity of Bonnie Doon, the somber kitchen chat with Dad (“What do you call that, Darl?”) or the tournament batons for sale at the trading post (“Tell him he’s dreaming!”). For others, it’s the classic exclamation, “This goes straight to the billiard room!”
That the Castle language remains ubiquitous to this day is just one indicator of the 1997 film’s enduring cultural resonance. The relatively low-budget local production has become one of the most popular Australian films of all time. The film will celebrate its 25th anniversary next month.
“When we first sat read it was just a fun, endearing, humble, charming little film,” Tiriel Mora, who played suburban lawyer Dennis Denuto, told Guardian Australia. “But very a small Movie. We shot it in 10.5 days and that included half a day in Canberra for the High Court cases. There was no way we could have known it would resonate like that.” But it resonated at the time and has since. “It grew and grew and grew,” he adds.
The castle tells the story of the Kerrigan family’s struggle to save their home in the Melbourne suburbs, their castle, from being foreclosed on as the airport adjacent to the property is to be expanded. Father Darryl Kerrigan persuades local attorney Denuto (who is more familiar with the defense of petty criminals – including Kerrigan’s son – than with the Constitution) to challenge the takeover. After Denuto loses the case, retired solicitor Lawrence Hammill QC (played by Bud Tingwell) offers to appeal to the High Court gratuitously. Against all odds, they win.
For some, the now well-known and consistent of the film’s many catchphrases stem from the courtroom scene in which Denuto desperately struggles to gain legal authority to support his client’s case. “It’s the constitution, it’s mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s mood,” says Denuto.
“It’s rare that popular culture and the high court overlap,” says George Williams, a law professor at the University of New South Wales. “They’ve never done it more spectacularly than with The Castle. The film puts the Supreme Court at the center of a battle between David and Goliath that will become ingrained Australian values around fairness and home. Williams says the Kerrigans lost under the real law of Section 51(xxxi) of the Constitution (which prohibits the federal government from forcibly acquiring land on anything other than “on fair terms”). However, the opposite result, he says, made for a better plot.
Part of the reason for the film’s cult status is that its producers, Working Dog, have given The Castle a life of its own. They have largely refused to speak publicly about the film; Executive producer Michael Hirsh declined an interview request from Guardian Australia. In an interview with Radio New Zealand last year while promoting the TV series Utopia, Hirsh’s Working Dog’s Rob Sitch said: “I think in a way, avoiding us was the wisest thing to do. It was a gift that is given to us again and again.” The film is often repeated on Channel Nine and is available to stream on Stan.
“What’s so refreshing about The Castle is its deep Australianness,” says William MacNeil, honorary professor at the University of Queensland and leading expert on law and culture. According to MacNeil, the film corrected the cultural fright that had previously made Australian audiences more familiar with US or British right-wing drama. “Indeed, Denuto makes so much of his ‘vibe’ that the Australian Constitution – hitherto unknown in terms of its dramatic possibilities – practically becomes a main character of the film.”
The amorphous “vibe” in turn has penetrated the typically refined language of the legal world. The term has found its way into many legal battles, including numerous High Court hearings. Denuto’s famous submission was cited in a 2010 NSW court ruling, while a Queensland lawyer sued for $250,000 in defamation damages after the he had been referred to as ‘Dennis Denuto from Ipswich’ (he lost).
Such was the film’s resonance within the law that it was the only film to receive an entry in the Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia. In a rare break in his silence during the film, the entry was written by Sitch, who directed and co-wrote The Castle. “It’s a gripping saga that takes the rugged Australian outback, the rugged characters of the Anzac legend, the spirit of Banjo Paterson and ignores them in the favorites of a greyhound racing tow truck driver who never wanted to be a hero,” he jokes .
In the written entry, Sitch also targets the High Court authorities who refused to allow filming at the brutalist courthouse in Canberra. Instead, the courtroom scenes were filmed in Melbourne before briefly traveling to Canberra to film the High Court. Mora recalls filming taking place on a freezing Saturday in Canberra when local journalists were pressed to be extras. “That added authenticity,” he laughs.
But The Castle, published five years after the landmark High Court ruling in Mabo, also carried a more serious message. “The film wasn’t just brilliant entertainment,” says Macquarie Law School professor emeritus Tony Blackshield. “Its real social function was to provide a deeper social understanding of the meaning of mabo.”
Blackshield suggests that the scene in which Darryl Kerrigan exclaims that his predicament has helped him understand how Indigenous Australians feel about dispossession is “the focal point of the film”. (In another scene, Denuto mischaracterizes Mabo in a legal argument: “This is your classic case of big business trying to conquer land… and they couldn’t.”)
The film was released at a time of increasingly conflicting national discourse, after Mabo and the Native Title Act recognized that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities had legal rights to land. “The film becomes this wonderful intervention that twists this notion of home and country and country into an identifiable language [to mainstream Australian audiences]says Professor Kieran Tranter, Chair of Law, Technology and Futures at Queensland University of Technology. At a time when right-wing politicians and newspapers were arguing against a homegrown title, “The Castle sold a nervous nation a story that was pretty comforting,” says Tranter.
Mora suggests that the castle’s political message was “sharp yet subtle” (though he laughingly admits “that doesn’t make sense”). “The very strong underlying theme of the film is about justice, and that’s justice for all, not just for some people,” the actor continues. By using an ordinary suburban family as the vehicle, Mora proposes to “make larger issues of injustice more accessible to early Australians”.
These remain living political issues (including before the Supreme Court). “[The Castle] touched on a very important conversation that we’re still having,” adds Mora. Whether it would be appropriate today to make a film that indirectly deals with indigenous issues, with a predominantly white cast, is debatable. “A lot of problems are discussed [Indigenous] stories without having [Indigenous] representation,” admits Tranter.
Asmi Wood, a Torres Strait Islander and professor at the Australian National University College of Law, says The Castle has stood the test of time. As an expert on Indigenous rights, Wood often discusses the film with first-year law students and praises it for its subtle political message. “To get people to understand that there’s a different group of people who might feel alien for different reasons and under different circumstances, but to generate that level of empathy, I think the film is absolutely brilliant,” he says.
But despite The Castle’s cultural commentary, legal legacy and political purpose, it remains popular because it’s guaranteed to get a laugh. “I thought it was very funny,” says Wood.