‘Oh no. Do we have to?’ Essie Davis didn’t want Nitram made. But then she read the script

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‘Oh no. Do we have to?’ Essie Davis didn’t want Nitram made. But then she read the script

The Tasmanian-born actress plays one of two women who were central in the life of the Port Arthur killer.

By Stephanie Bunbury

Essie Davis remembers the day of the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996 all too clearly. She was in Sydney. Justin Kurzel, now her husband but at that time a new romance, was there when she took the phone call from a friend in her native Tasmania, saying, “You’d better turn on the TV; this is happening”, she recalls. And there it was: a lone gunman, for whatever reason, had taken a cache of high-powered weapons to a tourist precinct and killed 35 people.

Kurzel also remembers. How he saw her face change with the receiver to her ear. How distraught her family was. “They didn’t know where some of their children were. They had heard one of them was down at Port Arthur for the day.” For those old enough to remember, the wound still runs deep. “In Tasmania,” says Davis, “there is one degree of separation. There is no one I know from that period who didn’t know someone involved.”

Essie Davis plays Helen, the woman who befriends the troubled young man in Nitram. “I read it and it was so brilliant and so important,” she says of the script.

Essie Davis plays Helen, the woman who befriends the troubled young man in Nitram. “I read it and it was so brilliant and so important,” she says of the script.Credit:Stan

Around a decade ago, Kurzel and scriptwriter Shaun Grant started talking about making a film, not about the shooting itself, but about the life of a man who became that kind of killer. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, really? Do we have to?’,” says Davis. “But then Justin got the script for Nitram and he said, ‘Here, read this’ – and I read it and it was so brilliant and so important.” She would eventually play the crucial role of Helen, a lonely middle-aged heiress who befriends the young man who comes round offering to mow her lawn, taking him in and taking on his creeping madness: two lost souls together.

It was living in Los Angeles that prompted Grant finally to write his Port Arthur story. The city’s everyday violence was shocking to him. When he started on Nitram, there had just been two mass shootings within 10 days; even his favoured grocery store was hit. “The debate was up. I guess I’m a writer; I can’t do much more than that. It seemed to me that you had to look at these young men with a lot of common traits. I wanted to walk in the shoes of this person for a time, so when he walked into a gun shop you would say, ‘Yes, this is why we need gun control’.”

Nitram is not a dramatisation of real events, but it isn’t fiction either. It is more of an interpretation of the real, with some characters dropped or transformed and situations invented. Judy Davis, who plays the killer’s mother, says she read the woman’s autobiography but did not try to be like her.


“My understanding of Justin’s film is that it’s not attempting to be a documentary,” she says. “It’s fictional in the sense that the mother and father are only ever called ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and the son is only ever called ‘son’. That was very deliberate. There was a wig, actually – I went into it assuming I’d try to look like her a bit – but Justin really didn’t want that.”

Judy Davis plays the killer’s mother in Nitram.

Judy Davis plays the killer’s mother in Nitram.Credit:Stan

What was important was the sense of ordinariness. Here is a woman floundering, says Judy Davis, understanding almost nothing, doing her best.

“What was really compelling about this screenplay,” says Kurzel, “was that I could go, ‘Oh my God, I know this mother; I know what these challenges are, this street looks very similar to a street I grew up on, there is a world here I recognise’.”


Nitram is the story of a person gone wrong, a family gone wrong. Mother and son are made awkward by their lack of love, but the mother keeps trying, visiting her son when he is living alone in Helen’s house with her dozens of dogs, trying to see that he looks after himself.

The father, played by Anthony LaPaglia, is the softer touch, perhaps because he has taken refuge in despair. The son’s erratic moods and impulses have long since defeated him. “That fatigue of just parenting,” says Kurzel. “What happens when you have someone who is really hard to bring up? What do you do?”


Caleb Landry Jones plays the son in a performance that won him the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. Landry Jones comes from Texas; he has relatives who take guns to church. His character is the kid who injures himself setting off fireworks, ends up in hospital and wants to do it again. The kid who gets bullied for being weird, who grows up never fitting into any tribe, who falls through every crack. Nitram doesn’t explain him, just shadows his footsteps.

“And the point where you fear this character the most,” says Kurzel, “is the moment when he walks into a gun store without a licence and is able to buy the most horrific weaponry like he’s buying fishing rods.”

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in Nitram.

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in Nitram. Credit:Stan

Within 12 days of the Port Arthur massacre, the Federal Government introduced stringent new laws controlling gun sales and declared an amnesty for weapons that were now illegal; 650,000 guns were handed in. “It was really something that as a country we should be incredibly proud of, wanting to protect more and more, making sure that never ever changes,” says Kurzel. In fact, perhaps because the subject is so painful, a whole generation of young Australians has barely heard of the massacre or the reforms that followed. As gun enthusiasts press for those laws to be relaxed, who will defend them?

Kurzel and Essie Davis moved to Tasmania with their children four years ago. It was just as his wife had always said, says Kurzel. “It’s just beautiful. When Shaun sent me the script for Nitram I was incredibly scared because I love that place, you know, I love the people and I understand how incredibly traumatic it is to discuss this.”

Caleb Landry Jones and Justin Kurzel on the set of Nitram.

Caleb Landry Jones and Justin Kurzel on the set of Nitram.Credit:Stan

Essie Davis anticipated a fight. “I love Tasmania; I always have come home to Tassie and I love living here,” she says. “But it gets very divided. I grew up here during the no-dams campaign. I was the only greenie in my school and it was dangerous. It can be a really extreme world with very few people very close together.”


In 2012, there was a furore when the Glover Prize for landscape painting went to Rodney Pople for an eerie scene of Port Arthur that included a portrait of the killer. It’s interesting, says Kurzel, that there is no such opposition to making documentaries about that dreadful day, even sensational ones touting conspiracy theories. “But when artists look at it, it seems to be challenging for people to understand why,” he says. “Why would you explore these things through the medium of art?”


Why, indeed? “I’ve been walking around, incredibly nervous about the film coming out, very aware of what it means to people here,” he says. “And that worries me but, at the same time, I believe it is a story we need to discuss.”

Australia, not least in Tasmania, has a dark history of violence but a reluctance to acknowledge it. “I think we need to have open conversations about that history, those dark chapters that we think we can’t.”

Nitram is currently screening in cinemas around the country, except Melbourne where it screens at the Lido and Cameo outdoor cinemas on October 28 and opens in cinemas on October 29. The film will also stream on Stan from November 24.

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