An Australian attorney defends a group of aborigines who are charged with killing one of their own for violating a tribal taboo. As the murder case progresses, he becomes plagued by apocalyptic visions of water that entwine him with the prophetical beliefs of his clients.
The roving Australian director, Peter Weir, encountered his creative muse while on holiday in Tunisia. “I found a buried Roman head, a beautiful piece of marble which I somehow knew I was going to find. It was an extraordinary experience,” the respected filmmaker remarked upon recalling his moment of premonition. “I wondered what if a lawyer had found it, someone whom it was harder to assimilate, the rational man rather than the filmmaker who deals with the imagination.” The idea percolated to the point of becoming the starting point for The Last Wave.
It was not the first time the Australian had worked with Aboriginal actor, Gulpilil, who gained international attention as the star in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. “I used him in a T.V. episode in a very straightforward part,” Weir stated. “He was being persecuted by a white overseer in an historical series, and we were chatting in a bar one night after work; he said some things about his family, and then suddenly he said a sentence. It was something like, ‘You see my father and I and that’s why the moon isn’t.” Peter Weir was confused by the remark. “I thought about it that night and the next morning and suddenly I realized what it was. That he was talking about another perception. He was talking about an experience for which there are no words. He’d seen something in another way. That was a breakthrough for me, firstly in writing the screenplay, and secondly in my future conversations with him because then I would look out for these moments or I would provoke them.”
Weir continued. “I wanted the film to show the contrast between the European without the dreaming and the tribal person with the dreaming, and we talked about some of those things. Later, Nandji, changed quite a bit of dialogue and asked for certain things be put in.” He went on to give an example. “The dinner scene with the family, which is my favourite scene. It was really constructed by Gulpilil and Nandjiwarra. Nandjiwarra put in all the lines about the law and the law being more important than man, and that is really the heart of the film. It was a marvelous day of filming, one where you call ‘cut’ and nothing really changes, the conversation continues. At the lunch break they didn’t really care about leaving; the conversation between Chamberlain and Nandjiwarra continued.”
The Last Wave begins with a group of schoolchildren playing a game of cricket; however, they are quickly forced inside by an abrupt hail storm. The strange weather intensifies as David (Chamberlain) becomes obsessed with the ongoing murder trial. Haunted by images suggesting that the end of the world is at hand, he recruits one of the defendants (Gulpilil) to be his spiritual advisor. David’s apocalyptic visions climax when he confronts a tribal shaman (Nandjiwarra) in a sacred subterranean site located beneath the city. David escapes so to warn the people above of the imminent natural disaster. He collapses in hopelessness upon witnessing the rise of a great wave high above the urban landscape.
“I think I have to be honest and say that I didn’t find the solution to the problem of how to end the film,” confessed Weir when addressing the controversial conclusion to the movie. “There is no ending. I was painted into a corner. I have seen it happen with other filmmakers dealing in this kind of area. You can’t end it. You can try to be clever, and I tried a couple of other endings that did stop short of any wave, but they were just too neat. The ending just plagued me, and it was an extremely unhappy period. Part way through the film we broke over Easter. I remember a terrible few days wrestling with this ending and pretending I had found a solution to it.” He also went on to state. “It’s just the last chapter that is missing. I just have to leave it; don’t look back.” Upon further reflection, the storyteller admitted he would have approached things differently. “I think if I did the film today, I would…stay in the court of law.”