The Outlaw Michael Howe tells the story of its eponymous bushranger’s rebellion against the British empire in early nineteenth century Van Diemen’s Land (an embryonic title for Tasmania). Played by Damon Herriman (who you might recognise as a far less noble outlaw, Dewey Crowe, from Justified), Howe is defined by anger and sadness. His rebellion, achieved by setting English colonies ablaze, is defined less by strategy than a manifestation of sullen wrath.
As a historical document, Michael Howe is unsuccessful. The English villains are poorly-defined and poorly-performed, restricted to darkened sets that try (and fail) to obscure the small budget. Howe’s alliance and dalliance with a rich colonialist’s wife, Maria Lord (Mirrah Foulkes), is based in historical fact but lacks a compelling narrative purpose; Maria is less a person than a Biblical viper, a familiar femme fatale archetype.
As an expression of mournful anger, the film resonates. Its best moments find Howe drifting through the gorgeously-photographed Tasmanian wilderness, always on the cusp of a terrible tempest, moments where he reflects and deliberates and is forever defined by helplessness. Herriman is excellent in the role; his performance suggesting that beneath the surface of this crusty brigand is a lost, rebellious teenager.