It may have been the blood-eating worms making a home in the lump on his forehead. Or the gag-worthy scene where the explorers eat a roasted monkey. But at some point during Jungle, the well received new film by Greg ‘Wolf Creek’ McLean that was MIFF's opening night gala on Thursday, everyone in the Regent Theatre realised they were not at Hogwarts anymore.
True, Daniel Radcliffe has been trying to kill off the spirit of the Boy who Lived for a long time, most recently by playing a farting corpse in last year’s largely derided Swiss Army Man. But in Jungle, the MIFF audience were treated to a gruelling survival story, a journey into the heart of darkness and out the other side made all the more poignant by the fact the man who lived through the ordeal in real life, Yossi Ghinsberg, was there in person.
In 1981, Israel-born Ghinsberg followed a charismatic but deeply untrustworthy Austrian, Karl Ruprecter, into the wilds of Bolivia on the promise of spotting a lost tribe and possibly some gold along the way. In the film we see Radcliffe as Ghinsberg persuading two of his backpacking friends (played by Australian actors Alex Russell and Joel Jackson) to go along on the odyssey, which quickly turns sour when one of the four ends up with his feet covered in blisters and the monsoons threaten to arrive early.
Anyone who has lost their bearings on a hike for even a moment can understand the creeping panic conveyed in the film, along with the brittleness of the ties of friendship when up against the uncaring wilderness. Things kick into thrilling gear when the four decide to build a raft and take on the rapids, and the second half of the film focuses on Ghinsberg, separated from the others and faced with the likes of starvation, wild cats, quicksand and the aforementioned under-the-skin worms. He also suffers flashbacks and hallucinations – most of them brilliantly handled in the movie (with one clunky exception).
McLean’s film channels the great stories of madness at the end of a snaking river such as Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Deliverance (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), amped up by the director’s love of both body horror and tales of tourism gone horribly, horribly wrong. (If he ever makes a film in which cocky backpackers don’t meet a merciless serial killer/giant crocodile/burrowing skull leech, it will be whole new ballgame.) As for Ghinsberg, his slightly rambling introduction was quickly forgiven once the MIFF crowd saw what the poor guy endured.
Radcliffe said a brief hello via a prerecorded video but as always, it was festival patron Geoffrey Rush who gave the best speech of the night, confessing that he “was the true father of the boy wizard”. Rush played the ten-year-old Radcliffe’s dad in the 2001 film The Tailor of Panama (coincidentally, by Deliverance director John Boorman). “I’m proud of Daniel, my celluloid son,” Rush said, adding that despite the horrors of Jungle, he sees it “so much more as a family film”.