In what may be a first for Australian cinema, the hapless protagonist Hanif (Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek) is a young Afghan man, brought to Australia as a cameleer. Through a twist of fate, he comes into joint possession of a couple of stolen gold bars worth a tidy sum. But before they can be sold they need to be melted down, removing the insignia of the Crown.
This means setting out with camels in tow for the furnace of the title, keeping clear of the troopers bent on reclaiming the gold. Hanif’s partner in this enterprise is Mal (David Wenham), a vaguely piratical old prospector with a limp, the gift of the gab, and a determination to maintain the upper hand.
MacKay is not lacking in talent, but for a first-time director he may have taken on a little too much. While the scattered quality of the storytelling may be partly deliberate, a bigger problem is the lack of consistent tone: even as the death toll mounts, the effect has little in common with either the raw horror of The Nightingale or the ironic fatalism of, say, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition.
However many shots are fired, the implied outlook is humane, ultimately even sentimental. We’re not invited to relish the violence for its own sake – nor is this exactly an art movie, despite the many handsome wide shots of the landscape.
The film belongs largely to Wenham, by far the strongest presence in the cast as well as the most familiar to Australian viewers. Mal’s motivations may be hard to fathom, but his iconic qualities are instantly recognisable, especially when he’s stretched out lazily with his wide-brimmed hat over his eyes. Wenham remains, too, one of the most vocally effective actors in Australian cinema, his habitual tone that of a laidback yarn-spinner who enjoys keeping his listeners guessing.