‘The Furnace.’

Roderick MacKay’s debut feature The Furnace has been hailed as a compelling, ambitious and meticulously researched exploration of a little-known slice of Australian history following the world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.

Critics praised the performances of Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek as Hanif, a wide-eyed young Afghan cameleer, and David Wenham as a shifty gold prospector.

DOPs Michael McDermott and Bonnie Elliott’s camerawork was lauded for capturing the ancient landscapes of the Western Australian interior, as were Mark Bradshaw’s score and production designer Clayton Jauncey’s recreation of the gold rush town Mount Magnet in its infancy.

Produced by Timothy White and Tenille Kennedy, the 1890s drama co-starring Jay Ryan, Erik Thomson, Kaushik Das, Baykali Ganambarr, Trevor Jamieson, Mahesh Jadu and Samson Coulter screened in the festival’s Horizons section on Saturday.

The plot follows Malek’s Hanif and Wenham’s Mal who is on run with two Crown-marked gold bars. Together the unlikely pair must outwit a zealous police sergeant and his troopers in a race to reach a secret furnace – the one place where they can safely reset the bars to remove the mark of the Crown.

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney opined: “The Furnace is a handsomely mounted film of an ambitious scale for a first feature, and there’s much to admire in its measured approach, echoed in the brooding strings of Mark Bradshaw’s score.

“Most of all, it holds your attention with its unfamiliar account of pioneer immigrant experience and its poignant depiction of the affinity between those outsiders and Indigenous Australians.

“While the simmering threat of violence could have been dialed up into more visceral climactic set-pieces, the film tells an engrossing story of a little-known chapter in colonial history, unfolding across the ruggedly beautiful desert landscapes of Western Australia.”

Roderick MacKay in Venice.

Screen Daily’s Nikki Baughan responded to a “weighty, surprising and beautifully made tale” and its meticulously researched depiction of the mix of cultures and religions.

She said the film is likely to win attention for its sensitive exploration of a little-known area of Australian history as well as strong performances and should attract audiences at home and overseas.

The Guardian’s Xan Brooks declared: “MacKay’s film is as tough as old leather and as unadorned as cow hide. There’s something of the 1960s spaghetti Western to its tense standoffs around the campfire, even a nod to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to its climactic showdown.

“But by this point Hanif is in for the ride – the temperature is climbing and it’s thoroughly enjoyable to see how this one will play out. We’re immersed in the action, living each twist and turn of the trail. When Hanif’s camel senses water and starts to kick up its hooves, it’s all we can do not to break into a run.”

The writer-director had to get federal government approval to leave the country, making the case that The Furnace is the only Australian official selection at Venice.

On arriving in Italy, MacKay quarantined at a Rome apartment for two weeks, watching movies like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. When he returns to Perth, government-appointed hotel quarantine awaits him.

Funded by Screen Australia, Screenwest and Lotterywest and the Western Australian Regional Film Fund, the film will be released in Australasia by Umbrella Entertainment, probably in 2021; Arclight Films handles worldwide sales.

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