This outback western is buoyed by charming performances and quick-witted, multilingual dialogue that brings the past to life
There’s a common refrain in The Furnace, Roderick MacKay’s accomplished and brutally tough directorial debut, that says there's no God in the Australian Outback, that the land is governed only by sweltering heat and brute force. As this honest and well-researched western explores the true diversity of Australia’s history, though, with Aboriginal, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian faiths awkwardly coexisting in the desert and each carrying their various Gods with them into the wilderness, that turns out to be not quite true.
Our guide through this previously underexplored world is Hanif (Ahmed Malek), an Afghan cameleer employed as a trader in the 1897 Australian desert alongside his Aboriginal guide Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr, who previously impressed in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale). They’re an immensely charming duo, the film investing you in their journey with astonishing speed through a combination of affecting performances and jovial, multi-lingual dialogue, Hanif and Woorak shifting between Pashtu, Aboriginal dialects, and English without missing a beat.
Eventually, though, the pair are forced to split up when Woorak has to return to his tribe for a ceremony and Hanif heads north to trade with the gold-mining villages. On his way, Hanif encounters the aftermath of a bloody shootout and its sole survivor, gravel-voiced bandit Mal (David Wenham). Badly wounded, Mal needs Hanif and his camels to get him to a furnace where he can melt down his English crown-marked gold and reconstitute it into untraceable bars, and so a distrustful deal is struck.
Malek and Wenham play off well against one another, as Hanif’s nervous naivety and discomfort at the amorality of white Australians is slowly transformed by Mal’s more unknowable cynicism. MacKay never rushes their changing relationship, and the genuine camaraderie they eventually achieve feels so much more satisfyingly earned as a result. The Furnace can move slowly – even a bloodthirsty band of lawmen on Hanif and Mal’s trail rarely feel like an overly immediate threat – but it uses the time it buys for itself incredibly well.
MacKay crafts a complete, lived-in world – unforgiving but vibrant, with a few dashes of hope thrown in. Whether Hanif and Mal are hiding out in a Punjabi trader’s caravan or negotiating with Chinese smugglers, there’s a new language and culture at every turn, and Hanif’s love for Woorak and his tribe is incredibly sweet. A touching postscript mentions that many of the cameleers – most of whom weren’t in Australia all that willingly – ended up as permanent members of various Aboriginal communities, integrating with Australia’s native cultures in a way that the English never cared to.
In all likelihood, The Furnace will be the first time many people, Australian or otherwise, have heard the stories of the Afghan, Persian, and Punjab cameleers who helped build the Land Down Under, and even if that were its only virtue, it would still be a vital piece of work. Thankfully, though, MacKay doesn’t settle for a mere history lesson, diving deep into the psyches of his characters and their makeshift alliances. It’s a film about how simple communication can change the world, a grand message buried within an affectingly intimate story.
The Furnace is now available on various streaming platforms.Where to watch