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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Something doesn’t add up"
3 stars

Why wasn’t Nick Tate a bigger star in Australia? He won an AFI award for Best Actor for The Devil’s Playground (1976), around the time he was starring in the international hit TV series Space:1999 (1975-77). It was in the wake of that success he came back to Australia to film the lead role in Summerfield. When the movie sank, it seemed Tate’s opportunity for film lead roles disappeared too. Since then he’s worked steadily on TV, in Australia and overseas, and as a leading voice-over artist.

But it’s a shame he didn’t get other chances to carry a film. Here he plays Simon Robinson, a school teacher assigned to the remote coastal Victorian town of Bannings Beach. His teacher predecessor, John Flynn, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances - though no one in town seems too fussed about it, or very welcoming to Simon.

He begins to get entangled in the lives of one of his students, Sally Abbott (Michelle Jarman), after he accidentally hits her with his car. She lives on an island property named Summerfield with her mother Jenny (Elizabeth Alexander) and her uncle, Jenny’s brother David (John Waters). What happened to Flynn? And what secret lurks behind the high fence surrounding Summerfield?

This was the follow-up film to Picnic at Hanging Rock for writer Cliff Green, producer Patricia Lovell and composer Bruce Smeaton. Summerfield director Ken Hannam (Sunday Too Far Away) certainly works hard to generate an atmosphere of unease.

Unfortunately the mystery of the missing school teacher isn’t much of a thriller for the audience because only Simon seems concerned about it. And enough clues have been dropped about the strange goings-on at Summerfield that the final revelations aren’t very shocking to to us, though - to give Hannam, Green and the actors credit - what happens afterwards certainly is.

There are compensations to the film. Summerfield was shot on beautiful Churchill Island, off Phillip Island on the coast of Victoria, and cinematographer Mike Molloy makes much of the rugged landscape. Nick Tate dashes all over the place but his character is ultimately more passive than active - he stumbles across the answers rather than solving the mysteries with his ingenuity. He nevertheless makes for a likeable lead and is backed by a fine supporting cast, including an icy Elizabeth Alexander and the warmer presences of Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell and Geraldine Turner.

When it was made, in 1977, Summerfield was a contemporary story at a time when most Australian films were set in the past. Now it has added value as a period piece (marvel at the tightness and short length of Tate’s tiny shorts!). The individual parts of Summerfield are enjoyable; it’s just a shame they don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

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originally posted: 04/10/15 17:09:44
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  30-Sep-1977 (M)

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