Genre: Feature film, drama
16mm enlarged to 35mm, colour
87 mins

Synopsis: An imprisoned alcoholic volunteers to go to a mental hospital to overcome his drinking problem, only to find that he can be detained there indefinitely.


Production Company: Smart St Films
Producer: Haydn Keenan
Director, script: Ebsen Storm
Original music: Winsome Evans
Cinematography: Michael Edols
Editors: Richard Moir, Ebsen Storm
Sound: Laurie Fitzgerald
Gaffer: Brian Bansgrove

Graham Corry
David Curtis
Brian Doyle
Bill Hunter
Haydn Keenan
James Kemp
Bob Mazza
Robert McDarra
Richard Moir

The title refers to the dreaded Section 27A of the Queensland Mental Health Act, under which certain patients could be detained almost indefinitely in a psychiatric institution. Storm reportedly based the film on a newspaper item he read about the problem of such long-term detainees.

It is an often bleak and confronting look at the dark side of contemporary Australia. The film begins with a clinical narration, describing the background of the main character, Billy Donald (McDarra), an alcoholic who has "sectioned" himself to try and beat his drink problem.

27A was certainly the first Australian feature that dealt honestly and directly with the intertwined themes of mental health, incarceration and the problems drugs and alcohol. It is also worth noting that 27A anticipated the more conventional and much better-known ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST by at least a year. There can be little doubt that it is also a direct precursor of John Hillcoat's 1988 prison classic, GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD.

27A doesn't preach, nor does it depict the various protagonists as clear-cut heroes or villains. All are seen as victims of the system. There are references to the growing heroin problem (then becoming a serious social issue) and the status of Aboriginal detainees. A group of Aboriginal inmates (one of whom is played by the late Bob Mazza) appear repeatedly as a silent but regular reminder of the many Aboriginal people caught up in the prison and mental health systems.

The style is episodic and impressionistic. There is no conventional Hollywood narrative, and the film is shot largely in a documentary style. There are some jarring juxtapositions -- the bleak surroundings of the wards and the often brutal and humiliating treatment of the inmates are set against the elegant Victorian appointments of the doctor's office and the idyllic countryside around the hospital. The odd camaraderie of the hospital exercise yard is contrasted with Billy's disorienting return to the city after his escape, and his awkward encounter with an old friend in a city street. There are some nice comic moments, like Billy's successful escape, which leaves his nemesis, head nurse Cornish bellowing impotently in the middle of a field. But there are also moments of stark drama, like Billy's forcible strip-and-shower at the hands of the sadistic Cornish (Hunter), and a truly harrowing sequence in which a young inmate dies in agony after swallowing razor blades.

Billy's plight is portrayed sympathetically but without resorting to cheap sentiment. Threaded through the film is Billy's poignant struggle to be released so that he can visit his dying wife. There is a beautifully dreamlike scene, after his escape to the city, in which Billy has brief encounter with a young boy and his dog, and it is profoundly moving. (The scene was filmed in the gutted shell of the old Ultimo powerhouse, now the Powerouse Museum). But Storm resists any mawkishness by immediately cutting away to a bizarre scene of the nurses inspecting a workmate's new car, with a strange, comic narration in a fake American accent.

Robert McDarra shines with a dignified and beautifully understated performance as Billy, and Bill Hunter stands out as the sadistic head nurse Cornish. Richard Moir (also the film's co-editor) makes a strong impression in one of his first film roles, as an edgy young drug addict inmate.

Note: composer Winsome Evans is the founder and leader of Sydney's famous musical group, The Renaissance Players.

"The British fictional documentary man Ken Loach took no chances when building his case against mental institutions in Family Life, first shown to Australian audiences about two years ago. The methods of treatment were barbarous, the girl patient stubborn but innocent -- a comprehending but helpless victim of pig-ignorant parents backed by the paraphernalia of the law.

Working on the same ground with their film 27A, the Australian team of Haydn Keenan have dared to pass up the shocks for something more complex in the way of setting and characterisation, and it works -- with a laconic, abrasive energy that makes it as entertaining as it is disturbing.

27a was finished a year ago for $45,000 plus the year that Storm, the writer-director, spent on the script. IT has already gathered its awards (a $5000 Australian Film Development Corporation prize at the 1973 Australian Film Awards is among them), and its now taking its chances commercially.

So far it's been publicised for its message and the persuasiveness of its semi-documentary tone -- which is a pity because it's a fine feature adorned with bitter and sometimes funny dialogue, rich characterisations, a sense of place (as distinct from an eagerness to exploit the picturesque) and a story line with some texture to it.

The core of it all is a performance from Robert McDarra, an actor new to me although he's been working in Sydney for years. He makes Bill Donald, the imprisoned alcoholic, whose story it is, glow with a sly, sceptical, irritating humanity that makes you care very much what happens to him. Billy has nothing working for him except suspicion and the practised desperation of the vagrant, but it proves to be all he needs.

Storm got his idea from a 1972 news story about the detention of an alcoholic in Queensland's mental institutions. The man had been sentenced to six weeks in jail on a charge of false pretences with intent to procure drugs and while denying drug addiction, admitted his alcoholism, asking to be treated. What he got was a transfer to a psychiatric clinic where he found the six-week sentence could be extended indefinitely under 27A of the Queensland Mental Health Act.

As a film dramatising a social issue, 27A has its faults. It is sometimes hazy about detail, but its atmosphere atones for that.

The institution has its villain, a bullying male nurse played called Cornish (played with off-hand malevolence by Bill Hunter) but it's the place itself, with its partitions, its corridors and its unlovely little exercise yard where the men sit in progressive stages of boredom or despair, that matters most.

Billy reacts at first like a frightened, knowing child. He objects to taking a shower, so he is half-carried to the bathroom by the gleeful Cornish who likes the enforcement part of his job best. Billy is an unlikely hero, with the shakes, blotchy skin, and a sunburn that ends at his shirt collar. His daughter comes to see him and when he runs out of the room in anger, tells the doctor that none of his children love him or even like him. He is surly and uncooperative, yet fully sympathetic in his awareness of the kind of person he is, and the film's strength is in its realisation of him.

Occasionally someone goes over the wall, heading off through a disconcertingly beautiful landscape to the city, and usually they are brought back because they haven't quite been able to figure out where to go.

The film, made in 16mm blown up for the cinema screen, looks a little rough in comparison with some of the local productions now being made on far bigger budgets. But Storm's script, the way he handles his actors and his treatment of locations make 27A the most artistically sophisticated Australian feature in some time."
- Sandra Hall, The Bulletin, 1973 (reprinted in Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review, 1984)


Sandra Hall (1984) - Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review (Rigby)



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