In 1997, The Castle was a feel-good satire of the working class. In 2021, it’s a depressing example of how far we’ve fallen.
There are few films as beloved in Australia (and completely unknown everywhere else) than The Castle. The reason it’s so revered is that it neatly captured a very particular 80s/90s suburban working-class Australian experience which seldom got screen time but is familiar to anyone who ever lived in the suburbs: the family house on the quarter-acre block, cars parked on the front lawn and dad always tinkering with some little improvement or other which he’s in no way qualified to make.
You know the plot, even if you haven’t watched the film in ages. The Kerrigan family are going about their happy lives when they are told their beloved house in Coolaroo (a real outer Melbourne suburb about 28km from the CBD) will be acquired by the government as part of a nearby airport expansion. They decide to fight this in court on spuriously legal grounds, and they win…because it’s a movie when in real life they’d have been immediately crushed by the powers that be, as everyone who attempted to get anything close to market value for the properties acquired for WestConnex discovered.
But watching The Castle again all this time later there’s another significant takeaway, in how badly our standards of living have plummeted in the last 24 years.
Things have gotten so bad in Australia that what was once an affectionate satire about suburban bogan aesthetics is now an unachievable fantasy in which the central narrative question isn’t how a fourth rate criminal lawyer takes on the might of the Australian government and wins, but how a low-income family somehow acquires a million-dollar property portfolio without the AFP immediately authorising a raid.
In the film, the family is supported by one and a half wages (Darryl’s tow truck job and Sal’s part-time job at Sunbeam) and clearly don’t have much cash to splash about. And yet, they own a house, a holiday shack at Bonnie Doon (another real place about two hours from Coolaroo, on the shores of Lake Eildon), multiple motor vehicles, and a goddamn boat.
And yes, the house is just over the fence from the airport and may well sit on poisoned soil, but it’s still a decent-sized gaff. From the film we can presume that it has at least three bedrooms: one for Darryl and Sal, at least one for their sons Dale and Steve (and Wayne, when he gets out of prison), and one for the newly-married daughter Tracey and her husband Con.
The amount they’re offered for the house in the film is $70,000 and they don’t seem utterly appalled by the amount, so one can assume it seemed at least reasonable at the time. Although that possibly doesn’t take into account the more intangible qualities – such as the cubbyhouse-turned-greyhound hutch, the fake chimney, and the convenient proximity to the runway.
But let’s assume that $70k was the actual going rate for a house in that area in 1997. What does that get you now?
Well, using the scientific rigour of the first online inflation calculator Google pulled up, it appears that $70k in 1997 is the equivalent of about $122,500 in 2021 dollars. And according to Realestate.com.au, the median property price in Coolaroo is currently $478,500 for a three-bedroom house. Even one-bedroom apartments in neighbouring suburbs are going for $300+, and it’s important to note that they don’t even have a pool room.
The Kerrigans definitely did well in Bonnie Doon, though: again, apparently, the land was a steal when Darryl put the house up whereas now the median property price is $500k.
But back to the family home: what sort of property does $122,500 get you in the Coolaroo district right now? Easy: absolutely nothing.
In fact, assuming they want to stay in Victoria, the 2021 Kerrigans would have to lower a few of their expectations. A quick look at Domain.com.au suggested have a few options available, provided they were cool with living on a vacant lot in a rural setting – but if they were going to be picky and demand some sort of weatherproof structure huddle within they’d need to compromise a bit compared with their 1997 experience.
For example, they could afford a house on that money by downgrading from three bedrooms to one, from five car spaces to one, and by relocating about 280km north to Cohuna, a desolate jewel of the Murray, to an ancient transportable that looks like it’s hosted more than its share of murders. Which would make for a very different movie, as anyone who has seen the Australian low-budget classic Houseboat Horror can tell you. (It’s fine, by the way, but it’s no Outback Vampires.)
So if you’re feeling depressed about the property market right now, be advised that it’s not you: things have gotten so bad in Australia that what was once an affectionate satire about suburban bogan aesthetics is now an unachievable fantasy in which the central narrative question isn’t how a fourth rate criminal lawyer takes on the might of the Australian government and wins, but how a low-income family somehow acquires a million-dollar property portfolio without the AFP immediately authorising a raid.
Or to put it another way: if you know any millennials who aspire to the working class Boomer lifestyle of The Castle, tell ‘em they’re dreaming.