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Dark poem lights up silver screen

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For oak and elm have pleasant leaves, that in the springtime shoot; but grim to see is the gallows-tree, with its adder-bitten root, and, green or dry, a man must die Before it bears its fruit.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol,

Oscar Wilde

It took him a year to make, cost him $1000 a minute, and saw him “hang” a man at the Old Melbourne Gaol.

Criminal law specialist James Cahill’s first foray into film-making was abandoned twice before the 14-minute film of Oscar Wilde’s epic poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol – which Mr Cahill produced, directed and acted in – finally premiered in May.

The film focuses on the story of a man destined to hang at the gallows. It is, according to Mr Cahill, a statement about capital punishment.

Oscar Wilde wrote the poem – which describes the degradation, humiliation and helplessness of prison life – after serving a two-year sentence in Reading Gaol from 1895. An edited version of the poem forms the basis of the film’s script.

“As a criminal lawyer, I have known this poem since university days and I wanted to turn it into a film rather than a play, which would have been a more transitory thing,” said Mr Cahill, who once appeared as a magistrate in the TV soap opera Neighbours.

“Although I have been in a few films, I had never made one and I thought this would be the best way to represent it. I wanted to do something a bit more permanent and to make it as graphic and as truthful as I could.”

While Oscar Wilde’s plays have been adapted to film, Mr Cahill believes this is the first time one of his poems has made it to the silver screen.

The film was shot in the Old Melbourne Gaol and the old Melbourne Magistrates’ Court – the court in which Ned Kelly was sentenced to death.

The cast included three County Court judges – Jim Duggan, John Smallwood and Liz Gaynor, Graham Thomas SC and barristers Joseph Kaufman and Paul Kounnas, and amateur actors from the Brighton Theatre Company.

“I was really very lucky with the actors, who were fully committed to it and they did such a great job,” said Mr Cahill, who played the hangman and a prisoner.

“I went into it with my eyes shut and with no appreciation of what was involved. It was very stressful, but ultimately I think it has turned out very well.”

Filming began in February and took place over two days and two nights.

“It was not an easy film to make,” said Mr Cahill, who runs Cahill Legal Consultants.

“Eighty-eight people were hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. It is a very harrowing place and at night has an eerily unsettling personality and energy of its own.”

He said the use of the jail with the cells and the scaffold – including the actual beam from which prisoners were hanged – added an “awful reality”, even for the most hardened criminal lawyer and judge.

He played the hangman, and said the scene in which he had to pull the hangman’s lever caused him some angst. “It was actually very unpleasant,” he said.

The project took 12 months to complete, with Mr Cahill saying it quickly became an obsession. “I gave up on it twice,” he said.

“The first time was when I couldn’t get the appropriate camera people and the second time was when I realised how much it was going to cost.”

He persevered, and is grateful to the actors who gave freely of their time and to the National Trust for access to the jail. Mr Cahill plans to enter his film in festivals, including the Bayside Council’s short film festival and Sydney’s Flickerfest. As for his next film venture, he said he was unlikely to embark on such an ambitious project again.

“Fourteen minutes doesn’t sound like much, but there were 10 hours of film which had to be edited down. It took three months to do that.”

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