Language, Identity & Culture
In this module, you will examine how language is used to represent identity and culture. The culture in question is middle class Australia.
Context & Purpose
Although The Castle was released in the late 1990s, its aesthetic qualities are more reminiscent of the 1980s, and the values it explores are considered to be equally outdated – that is, the patriarchal family structure and conservatism of the Kerrigans evokes the idealised 1950s nuclear family and society more broadly.
That the film blends mid-century values with late-century aesthetics is not a coincidence; the 1980s and 1990s was a period of rapid change for not only Australia but the world, as globalisation prompted rapid urbanisation and the proliferation of technology – developments that were supported by rising immigration and multiculturalism. This was obviously extremely disruptive and presented a challenge to many Australians who could not keep up with the pace of change. It was during the late twentieth century that existing divisions between the working and upper classes became more prominent, as the wealth that came from globalisation was not distributed equally.
More immediately, the film was produced during a period of declining interest and funding in Australian media and entertainment. In consequence, the film was made on a low budget.
Relationship between Language and Collective Identity
The Castle makes the scope of the Kerrigans’ world immediately clear; they are a small-town family whose concerns do not extend beyond their neighbourhood, or even their home. From the outset, it is clear that language plays a crucial role in the formation and maintenance of their sense of identity: family dinners, and direct conversations are key. It is ultimately because this way of life is challenged that the Kerrigans find the legal battle with the government so destabilising and traumatic; they are unused to dealing with legal briefs, communicating through lawyers and, most obviously, the complex legal jargon used by the government and the courts.
We can track the disruption the legal battle causes to the Kerrigan’s sense of the world through the growing tension during dinnertime conversations, and gradual withdrawal of individual family members from family discussions.
It is then significant that it is ultimately Lawrence Hammill, with his distinctively sophisticated demeanour, is the person who is responsible for rescuing the Kerrigans from their crisis. Despite the glaring differences in their backgrounds, values and the ways in which they present themselves, the men are somehow able to form an alliance, as Hammill uses his legal knowledge, ostensibly provided to him by virtue of his privileged position in society, to aid Darryl. Indeed, the men are able to overcome their differences – best represented by their completely different use of language – to take down corporate Australia and the elitism it embodies.
The film also makes a comment on the nature of the relationship between White Australia and Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. This is most clearly represented when Darryl states ‘I’m really starting to understand how the Aborigines feel’ as he describes his anguish over the potential loss of his family home. Obviously, this is extremely insensitive, but it does capture the lack of understanding many Australians have of the history of colonisation and capitalism, which the film suggests is partly because of educational and class disparities.
The film follows the story of the Kerrigan family, led by patriarch Darryl, as they engage in a legal battle against a private company, Airlink, and the local government over the planned expansion of the airport.
Dale, the eldest son, introduces us to his family via narration. He paints a portrait of a family that is as loving as it is unique and quirky. And yet, there is a degree of comfort and family that is found in the apparent wholesomeness of the Kerrigan situation.
The positive energy and humour radiated by the Kerrigans is disrupted when the local council orders for the land their house sits on to be valued. Shortly after, the Kerrigans receive a letter from the council, saying that their house has been compulsorily acquired. Outraged and confused, Darryl visits the local council, where he discovers that it is working in partnership with the state government and a private company, Airlink, to expand the airport. Darryl seeks legal counsel from the family solicitor, Dennis Denuto.
Dennis arranges for Darryl to attend the administrative affairs tribunal the following Monday, where he will make his case to retain his family home. Wanting to escape the bad energy created by the looming crisis, Darryl takes his family to Bonnie Doon in the meantime, where Tracey and Con (Dale’s older sister and her husband) recount a recent trip to Thailand and their experience of a new culture there. The family returns to their home revitalised and encouraged, but their energy is crushed when Darryl, accompanied to the tribunal by his neighbour Farouk, loses the case. Despite the loss, his determination remains intact.
A man arrives at the Kerrigan household and threatens Darryl to take the money offered by the government. Steve (Dale’s older brother) scares him off with a shotgun. This motivates Darryl to step up his protest campaign, and the next day, at a meeting with his neighbours, he organises to have Denis represent them at the Supreme Court.
As Darryl awaits the verdict at the Supreme Court, he speaks with Lawrence Hammill, the father of a barrister appearing for the first time. Darryl reveals the dilemma he’s in, before discovering that he’s lost his case.
A short while later, as Darryl is putting the contents of the pool room in his house into moving boxes and reminisces on the memories the room contains, he is visited by Lawrence Hammill. Hammill offers to represent Darryl at the High Court of Australia, pro bono (for free).
At the High Court, Hammill makes an emotional and passionate appeal, making reference to the Australian Constitution throughout. He is successful, and Darryl returns home victorious.
The film ends with a montage depicting the happy futures of the different residents. We see Wayne (another of Dale’s older brothers) released from prison, and most significantly, the unexpected friendship between Darryl and Hammill.
The text examines the following cultural assumptions that audiences, and society more broadly, may have about the Australian lower-middle class
That they are uneducated
The Castle demonstrates how language is used by people in positions of power to manipulate others, especially individuals who are already in a less privileged or powerful position, resulting in further disempowerment and marginalisation. The complex vocabulary and refined accent of the people working for Airlink and the lawyers is contrasted with the exaggerated accents of the Kerrigans, to further highlight their lack of education.
Throughout the text, the Kerrigans are constantly depicted making statements that are at most wildly ignorant, and at the very least reflective of a lack of education or knowledge about the world in which they exist. An example of this is Darryl’s ‘over-simplification’ of the Australian constitution, ‘it’s the vibe of the thing!’ makes clear his lack of education, even if his poor choice of words in this moment is mostly because of the strong emotions he’s feeling.
They have strong family values
The Castle reflects the extent to which long-held assumptions about what was valued by Australians came under threat by the growth of the corporate and political worlds. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the exchange between the Airlink lawyer and Darryl: the lawyer calls the Kerrigan family home ‘an eyesore,’ failing to see its sentimental significance as a symbol of the family’s hard work, and Darryl replies with ‘What are you calling an eyesore? It’s a home, you dickhead!’
The Kerrigans’ belief in the right to a home and the stability it provides is not shared by Denis and the others involved in the legal proceedings, who have a better grasp of the realities of the power of corporations and the relative insignificance of the Kerrigans’ position.
From the outset, the film emphasises the value the Kerrigans, especially the patriarch, Darryl, place on family. Think of the opening sequence, in which we see a vibrant, family dinner taking place. In the opening sequence depicts the Kerrigans sitting down for family dinner, with Darryl at the head of the table symbolising his importance as the patriarch and reaffirming conservative views of gender roles and family structure. This is reaffirmed by Dale’s narration, in which he characterises his father as the ‘backbone’ of the family.
That they are ignorant on racial issues
This is shown to be a product of Kerrigans’ ostensible lack of education. They frequently make racially insensitive comments or assumptions about their ethnic neighbours or friends. The film presents their racism in such a way so that we laugh and take pity on them for it. The Kerrigan’s ignorance towards racial issues is encapsulated within what is arguably the film’s most famous line: ‘I’m beginning to understand how the Aborigines feel… This house is like their land.’ Darryl’s reference to the issue of land rights reveals his basic understanding of the horrors and trauma suffered by Indigenous peoples, and his overall failure to grasp the inappropriateness of drawing a parallel between his situation and the attempted genocide of that population.
That they are suspicious of the upper clases
The Kerrigans believe hard, honest work is the only legitimate means to wealth and success. They simultaneously believe that ideals such as wealth and success are vapid, and that they shouldn’t be valued. It is this belief that forms the core of their suspicion of the upper classes; they do not think people who find fulfilment in making money from the exploitation and suffering of others should be respected. In the courtroom scene, the use of a high angle shot when the camera is pointed towards Darryl, depicting him from the judge’s perspective, and a low angle shot to represent his view of the judge, captures the resentment with which he interacts with the upper classes, and his grasp of the inequality that exists between his world and that of the judge’s.
The value of hard work
In a similar vein to their suspicion of the upper classes, the Kerrigans also believe that honest, hard work should be respected and valued. Whether the film affirms or challenges this assumption is a question with no clear answer. Indeed, it does both. But ultimately, it challenges it: we see the Kerrigans’ hard work and earnestness completely dismissed, and it is only by seeking the help of Hammill, a barrister, that they are able to win the court case. In the example ‘You know why people like that get their way? Because people like us don’t stand up to them. You’ve just got to play by the rules.’ This quote from Darryl reflects his belief in the Australian values of fairness and respect – values he does not see in the Airlink people.
That less-financially able individuals are able to be bought out
The idea that people like the Kerrigans, who have no real political influence or financial power, can simply be bought out by more powerful entities, is disrupted by Darryl’s decision to challenge the council and Airlink.
Because of the value they place on family and hard work, and their suspicion of the upper classes, they refuse to simply be bought out. Darryl’s resistance to the idea that less-financially able individuals can simply be bought out is captured in his emotive declaration ‘You just can’t walk in and take a man’s house… It’s the law of bloody common sense.’ Notice too his use of distinctively Australian language to describe his situation – here, it becomes clear that he believes that what he is standing up for is at the heart of what it means to be Australian.