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Henry Thornton - Lifestyle: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Black and White Date 05/11/2002
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The story of a famous Australian legal case
By Henry Thornton Email / Print

Screenplay, Louis Nowra; Director, Craig Lahiff; Setting, Adelaide; Time, late 1950s


A moving story of the Max Stuart case. Stuart is a former boxer from Jimmie Sharman’s travelling troupe. He drinks too much and works with a travelling fairground. He is illiterate and not even articulate in English.


A nine year old girl is brutally raped and murdered in Ceduna The coppers find Stuart (David Ngoombujarra) an easy target, and quickly extract a confession, dictated “word for word” is the coppers’ claim at Stuart’s first trial. David O’Sullivan (Robert Carlyle) is appointed by the court to defend him. O’Sullivan is a not very successful solicitor but comes to believe Stuart is not guilty. A long legal battle begins.


O’Sullivan is no quitter and takes the case every possible step, to the High Court, the Privy Council and finally to a Royal Commission. The latter is thanks to a youthful Rupert Murdoch (Ben Mendelsohn) who shows how he will eventually tabloidise every newspaper in the world, to great good effect.


By now we the audience are meant to believe Stuart is innocent and even if we have any doubts the closed minds and downright unpleasant behaviour of the Adelaide establishment, the legal fraternity generally and the Pommie Law Lords in particular is right up one’s nose. The formidable Crown Prosecutor Chamberlain (played brilliantly by Charles Dance) is eventually come to be seem as “too black and white” by his establishment colleagues.


The afterwords say he gets his knighthood but not the other prize widely expected. We have staying with us a professor who has read the book on which the film is based. He says in reality there is a “formidable cloud” over the question of Stuart’s innocence. To me the police’s statement that the confession was in Stuart’s words establish gross miscarriage of justice in the first reel, so to speak. By the third reel in the film, O’Sullivan has got a linguistic expert to swear the Stuart could not possibly have produced those words, and in another place the judge refuses to let an English speaker read out Stuart’s account.


If the accused is meant to be given the benefit of reasonable doubt, surely Stuart should not have had to spend 14 years in jail, which was the outcome when the government commuted his sentence in the face of Murdoch’s brilliant press campaign. But the final scene, in which Max Stuart is played by himself as an old man driving in the outback, is perhaps deliberately ambiguous, as our Professor friend says the book is. Is there a good lawyer willing to see this film and give us a view?

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