NOVELS and the cinema have always had an erratic romance. Occasionally the union of inspired text with sympathetic director elicits a distinct magic: think The English Patient, Schindler’s Ark, etc. Sometimes collaboration verges on parody, burned on a Bonfire of the Vanities. Most often the affair is unrequited: book options are bought, years pass, the project is still-born.
Wise writers don’t hold their breath awaiting premieres of their works. Yet Christopher Koch, a wise writer if ever there was, is quietly confident his prize-winning novel Out of Ireland will soon make the silver screen. With justification, it seems, because behind it are lined up some seriously heavyweight hitters.
The novel itself won the Victorian Premier’s Award. Koch already has cinematic credits, his earlier The Year of Living Dangerously being a Peter Weir-directed success. The rights for Out of Ireland have been bought by Irish film company Tyrone Productions, producers of Riverdance. Irish novelist John Banville, a noted screenwriter (and crowd-pleasing guest at the recent Adelaide Writers Festival), has signed on to do the script. And the Irish Government has allocated funds for its development, as has the Tasmanian Government.
This is in fact the first venture of an Australia-Ireland film co-production agreement instigated during the 2000 visit by Irish PM Bertie Ahern. Ahern was keen to establish such an alliance, seeing it as a practical way of reinforcing the two nations’ interlocked histories and of linking Irish finance with Australian movie-making expertise. After a fireside chat between the PM, his cultural guru Dr Martin Mansergh and Ireland’s Ambassador to Australia, Richard O’Brien, Koch’s novel was pencilled in as project most likely.
Koch says O’Brien “made this whole thing happen ... he launched the book and he promoted it to Ahern and Mansergh. He's the fairy godfather of the film.” O’Brien, whose seven-year posting here ends in May when he heads off to Cairo, laughs at the description - “Indeed I’m not, that’s Christopher using his scribe’s licence for exaggeration”. Then he hits his PR straps: Out of Ireland is “a wonderful, fascinating book about wonderful, fascinating people which will make a wonderful, fascinating film.” It is filled with the richness that comes from reality, he says, even though it is fictionalised. “It’s about love discovered, love denied and love absent against a background of the Irish in Australia and the values they brought here …” Thank you, Ambassador.
A first-person account in journal form, the novel focuses on a Protestant from the Irish gentry, Robert Devereux, transported to Van Dieman’s Land for advocating an uprising against the British. Devereux is based on historic rebel John Mitchel in terms of his revolutionary career, in being transported to Bermuda and Tasmania and in his revolutionary attitudes, but his name and family background are those of Koch’s great-great uncle. The 1848 uprising itself ranks among the most idealistic if farcical of rebellions, beginning and ending infamously in Widow McCormack's cabbage patch near Ballingarry, County Tipperary. Mitchel and his fellow rebels (including Thomas Meagher, a governor of Montana and leading character in Tom Keneally’s The Great Shame) escaped the death penalty and later escaped their Tasmanian incarceration by heading to the US.
On publication, critics were almost unanimous in praising the book. Novelist Laurie Clancy called it a “formidable achievement”, poet Robert Gray described it and its companion, the Franklin Award-winning Highways to a War, as novels that “will surely become Australian classics”. Among the few unenthused was critic Peter Craven, who conceded it was “a four-square, five-star ripping yarn that might make a good film or miniseries” but felt the narrative moved “very s-l-o-w-l-y given the intrinsic dash of the plot”. (That opinion was dismissed by Gray, who noted “How closely allied to the self-righteousness of political correctness are the policing tactics of the literary radical.”)
Koch first encountered the Young Irelanders in his late teens. “I’d grown up with a little book called Young Ireland in Exile in my parents' bookcase but I was never tempted to read it as a child.” First published in Dublin in 1928, it had been written by an Irish priest deployed to Tasmania, James Cullen, a friend of Koch’s grandmother. Koch remembers meeting Cullen “when I was 7 or 8 – a nice white-haired man, as I recall” but doesn’t remember their earlier rendezvous when Cullen baptised him.
When he did read Cullen’s account, he was struck by extracts from Mitchel's Jail Journal – “they were so vivid and moving I wanted to read the originals but I couldn't find a copy anywhere. They’ve never been published in Australia in full, which is a disgrace, and I was able to pick up a second-hand version only in the 1970s, in Brisbane.” Mitchel’s descriptions of the Tasmanian landscape, Koch says, “are as good as any ever written. He was an erudite and sensitive man yet was considered a terrorist. In fact he was the most dangerous of the rebels - he anticipated Sinn Fein, he agitated for armed insurrection.”
Giving him the identity of his great-great uncle allowed Koch to create “a romantic in the 19th century mold of Wordsworth and Rousseau who comes up against the gritty realities of Tasmania through his association with an Irish convict girl, Kathleen, and with a tough ex-con Englishman who becomes his partner. It meant I could investigate how different values and culture might affect him.” Mitchel, a married man with children, had little contact with ordinary people and essentially despised them: Devereux, however, is changed by his experiences in a new world. That appeals to Banville, who sees Devereux as “a man who ceases to be a romantic hero and becomes a fully human being”.
Koch’s family connection to the novel doesn’t end with the fictionalised Devereux, whose sister, a maternal great-great grandmother from the Protestant Ascendancy, emigrated to Tasmania in 1840 (the same year her brother left Australia for American anonymity). Five years later, Koch’s other maternal great-great grandmother, an illiterate Catholic servant girl transported for stealing clothes, arrived: she became the starting point for the character Kathleen.
Tasmanian-born but now Sydney-based, Koch met Banville this week for a progress report. Already elated that “such a beautiful writer” was doing the script, he was even more “thrilled when Banville explained his intentions ... he’s doing it in depth, not a superficial approach in any way." Which given the book was 706 pages of densely crafted prose could be some challenge – or move any resultant film into Lord of the Rings-length territory. "It's really a matter of what you leave out,” Koch demurs, “and Banville is doing it along the lines I would."
The omens, he suggests, are all optimistic: “Banville needs to finish the script then we can sign up an Australian director and tie in an international distributor. The only doubt really is whether it will be a movie or a mini-series.” Perhaps the easiest element might be the film score: Koch could keep that in the family … his son Gareth is a leading Australian classical guitarist.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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