Set on a single day in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray and focusing on a number of its more colorful inhabitants, Pawno marks the directorial debut of veteran Australian actor Paul Ireland and the first breakout role for leading man Damian Hill (who also wrote the screenplay). The film clearly indicates a very bright future for both of these men in these capacities, even if it doesn’t necessarily deliver on it here.
The film primarily focuses on the central character Danny Williams (Hill) who works in a pawn store run by the outwardly vulgar and acerbic John (Les Underwood). Over the course of the day he tries to find love with Kate (Maeve Dermody), hangs out with two heroin addicts (Malcolm Kennard and Mark Coles) and interacts with an assortment of odd figures. In fact, Hill’s screenplay is filled with an entire chorus of characters, each of whom he ascribes an individual drama to (such as a mother, played by Kerry Armstrong, who is looking for her lost son). However, there is rarely any pay off, and while this may very well be the point – that we don’t know the resolution for every person’s story that we come across – as an audience member, it makes for unsatisfying drama.
Equally of issue with the screenplay are the tonal inconsistencies. It often feels like it wants to be an Australian Clerks (complete with the druggie duo) but it has such a broad range of tone on such a limited canvas that it can’t effectively pull it off – with one jarring and bloody sequence which comes out of nowhere, in particular. Again, this also seems intended by Hill and he should be saluted for taking risks, but he reaches too far and it doesn’t quite gel.
The actors all give fine performances. Hill gives himself the plum role of the film and he hits all the right notes and will hopefully go onto major leading roles. Underwood is strong in a multi-faceted role and he fills it with nuance which makes his character’s pay off at the end all the more touching. Dermody has already established herself as a strong and interesting screen presence and she continues to shine here. The cinematography by Shelley Farthing-Dawe is a major asset, gorgeously capturing the graffiti-filled beauty of what otherwise could have been a very cold and dreary locale. Working within a clearly limited budget, Ireland has directed a visually strong and confident film.
Much like the wordplay of its title, Pawno is a muddled film which strives for both realistic drama and low brow humour, and while it may achieve either one at any given time, it’s a combination that doesn’t mesh very well here. Whatever its flaws, Pawno is still an imminently watchable and engaging film and it shows strong promise for Hill and Ireland’s next work.