FOR FILMS IN CHARGE OF CHANGE
directed by Sam Collins
Set in 1850s Australia, Ambergris is a meditative psychological drama that pits human morality against adverse nature and instincts. Two men brought together by the ambition to catch a leviathan have to face a hostile environment and resist their urges. The journey they undertake to reach the mythical creature is a test of tenacity and survival that they can either pass or fail. Both conceptually and technically, Ambergris is a well-balanced, compelling short that challenges commonly held ideas about morality and human nature.
From the very beginning, the vast, almost incommensurable, barren land evokes the isolation that will be a key factor in the unfolding of events. Shortly, the setting changes to the interior of a 1850s shack, the only indoors scene of the whole film. This is where Solomon and Darrow, a sly bushman and a pragmatic prospector, meet. Though they are two profoundly different characters, they start travelling together in hopes of catching a leviathan, a valuable beached whale.
One strong asset of the film is the deep portrayal of both physical and psychological conflicts that the characters experience. The journey they undertake becomes a struggle for survival once the lack of resources, dehydration and frustration set in. Moreover, the complete remoteness and isolation of the Australian land strips them of all social barriers and conventions. Surrounded by adverse nature and solitude, Solomon and Darrow come to face their innermost, most primal self.
Ambergris’ strong mythical attribute allows for a deep communion with nature, divinity and oneself. As Solomon says “To walk is to be in communion. Each footstep is a way to exchange with the past”, the expedition becomes a means to explore one’s past, previous identities and memories. The characters exchange reflections and details of their life - past and present - but don’t reveal too much.
Aside from a symmetrical, well-balanced script, Ambergris’ quaint cinematography is consistent with the psychological drama and conflicts. Wide shots of barren landscape are followed by close-ups of the distressed characters in search of their holy grail. However, the inconsistencies in color grading can be bothersome. A more homogenous grading would have added more authenticity and consistency to the whole atmosphere. On the other hand, the original score performed by a chamber orchestra contributes to a buildup of tension and conflict that breaks out violently in the end.
Ultimately, Ambergris proves to be an allegorical short that questions human morality and instincts. Initially a journey of rediscovery, communion and growth, Solomon and Darrow’s quest becomes a ticking bomb for the disclosure of their true nature. In the end, it is as Darrow says: “Nature is not cruel. Animals act on instinct.” Though set in the past, the short’s conflicts and drama prove to be universal: in complete isolation, people become their innermost selves, falling prey to their primal instincts.