Hammers Over the Anvil

By Susan Polk

Directed by: Ann Turner

Starring: Russell Crowe, Charlotte Rampling, Alexander Outherd

Rating: ****

A BEGUILING blend of friendship, love and hard times in an outback town, Hammers Over the Anvil has an undeniable appeal that is both intelligent and moving. Based on the short stories of Alan Marshall, the film eases the narrative over the dusty and often cruel lives of the residents of Mintaro, from the perspective of the 12-year-old Alan (Alexander Outherd).

Motherless and crippled by polio at an early age, Alan's only dream is become a great rider like his hero, East Driscoll (Russell Crowe), who lives alone with his horses and is pursued in vain by every girl in town. Alan's father - once a renowned horsebreaker himself - tries to shore up Alan's fantasies, but he carries the stigma of having lost his nerve for the job, and although Alan clearly loves him, he automatically looks to East to fulfill his dreams.

The appeal of Hammers Over the Anvil lies in the attention to detail that reveals so much of the psychological makeup of the town's inhabitants. This is done seemingly without effort, but it is no easy feat to cover so many characters - from the bit parts on up - in such an easygoing, natural way. By the time the character of Grace McAlister (Charlotte Rampling Jarre) is introduced and the queer triangle of love and friendship takes hold, the backdrop is effortlessly in place and the mood set for the string of events that lead Alan to his first steps into manhood.

Crowe's performance is the most subdued, but the story calls for East to be rigidly private and self-contained until the final portion of the story unfolds. Only then does he lose control over his hitherto free-and-easy lifestyle, and Crowe takes command of these scenes with an electrifying raw energy.

Outherd holds the backbone of the film in place, and his portrayal of an adolescent torn between his dreams and the realities of his life as a polio victim is stunning for such a young actor. Alternately humorous, thoughtful, and petulant, Outherd sets the pace as if he were born to it, and the rest of the cast fall into place around him, fleshing out the film and taking the viewer into Marshall's world without hesitation.

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