A Love Letter To ‘Two Hands’, The Best Australian Film Of The 90s

Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne as actual babies.

Two Hands Heath Ledger Rose Byrne

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One of the first posts on Rose Byrne’s Instagram page is a blurry throwback shot of her and Heath Ledger, baby faced and super serious. The caption — before going on to shout-out her home dye job and $18 polyester dress — reads this: “Aussie kids on their first film”.

It’s a promotional photo for 1999’s Two Hands, the movie that had the tremendous good luck of casting two virtually unknown teenagers before they became big stars.

Both of them left for Hollywood shortly after this photo was taken; one of them, we know now, would live less than another ten years.

Even if Two Hands was terrible, it would be worth rewatching now to see Byrne and Ledger play doe-eyed love interests at the start of their careers. But it’s not terrible. Few homegrown flicks from the ‘90s hold up the way this does – in fact, not many Australian movies ever hold a candle to Two Hands.

Twenty years on, it still ranks as one of our greatest cinematic feats, a low budget success story from a first-time director that pulled in $5 million at the box office (and that’s in ’90s money, folks) and won critical acclaim.

Hell, even David Stratton gave it 4.5 stars. (Margaret, the hard-arse, gave it four.)

Remind Me What It’s About Again?

Lead actors notwithstanding, part of the reason Two Hands was such hit is that it blends two elements Australians love in their cinema: crime and comedy.

Ledger plays Jimmy, a spruiker at a Kings Cross strip club who’s tasked with the should-be-simple job of delivering $10,000 cash for Pando, a John Ibrahim-style underworld boss — if John Ibrahim exclusively wore polo shirts and thongs.

The strength of Two Hands is even more remarkable when you consider how young its three main players were when it was made.

Only he fucks it up and leaves the cash on the beach while he goes for a dip at Bondi (Sydney problems!), where it’s promptly stolen by a pair of street kids from the Cross.

Jimmy is then faced with having to dodge Pando and associates, find a way to make the money back before they kill him and also take Rose Byrne’s Alex on a date, a to-do list that gets more than a few people killed.

But for all the mayhem, Two Hands is more dark comedy than dark.

The good guys drive Holdens, the bad guys drive Fords. A bank robbery is botched when one of the robbers trips over the counter and knocks himself out stone cold. Jimmy escapes being killed because his would-be assassin ruined his gun by accidentally putting it through the wash.

It’s pitch perfect Australiana that never takes itself too seriously.

Oh, The Cast

The strength of Two Hands is even more remarkable when you consider how young its three main players were when it was made.

Writer and director Gregor Jordan was just 31 when the movie was shot; Byrne was 18, Ledger was 19 (it wasn’t quite their first films, per Byrne’s Instagram post, but might as well have been).

And the rest of the cast! Bryan Brown was born to play Pando. Susie Porter is great as Diedre, the sister-in-law who tries to get Jimmy out of trouble. A young Mariel McClorey (who’d later pop up in Love My Way, another Australian classic) plays a pivotal role as Helen, the street kid with a debt to settle.

A special shout-out goes to my estranged cousin Kieran Darcy-Smith who plays Craig, the bank robber who doesn’t make it out alive.

It’s also special to get to watch Heath Ledger play an Australian, something we’d only get to see twice more before his death (in 2003’s Ned Kelly, which saw him work again with his “best friend” Gregor Jordan, and 2006’s Candy). He looks every bit the star in these shots and is totally loveable as the film’s sometimes-hapless hero.

Ledger had just finished filming 10 Things I Hate About You (which would also be released in 1999, a month before Two Hands) that year, meaning Jordan caught him at just the right time.

“Casting the role of Jimmy was always critical,” he told FilmInk in 2017. “When you’re presenting a character who basically does very stupid things, you have to have an actor who’s likeable. Otherwise everyone will just think he’s a fuckwit.”

“I was really lucky to find him. You have to look at unknowns when you’re casting a 19-year-old. There just aren’t that many famous 19-year-olds in Australia, unless they’re soapie stars. I didn’t want a soapie star, because it’s too hard for people to get past it. I was doubly lucky with Heath, because he was so perfect for the role. He could really act, he looked amazing, and he had great screen presence and a great voice.”

Sydney Spotting

One of the other joys of Two Hands is how well it preserves the Sydney of the ‘90s on screen.

It’s a headfuck to see Kings Cross in all its gritty glory, so far from its current state. Many of the scenes were filmed at night on the streets of the Cross as it whirred with life, with Ledger getting tips on the correct spruik stance (you’ve got to put your hands behind your back, apparently) from real life counterparts who were on the job as they filmed. In a later tip of the hat, a strip club on the main drag later renamed itself Two Hands Required.

It’s great to see the parts of Sydney that survived the last 20 years, and those that didn’t.

And it’s great to see the parts of Sydney that survived the last 20 years, and those that didn’t.

Ledger and Byrne go on their first date to Star Hotel on Goulburn St, one establishment that still slings very cheap, very bad drops of red wine every night until 6am two decades later. Characters ride the monorail (RIP!), get the 327 bus to Bondi and place calls on Telstra pay phones. Powderfinger and Alex Lloyd provide the soundtrack.

Oh, and Pando teaches his son origami.

Two Hands

Only real ’90s kids will remember this

The only iffy bit about the whole movie is the occasional supernatural appearances from the ghost of Jimmy’s older brother, a plot device the movie could really have done without. To quote David Stratton: “If it wasn’t for that ghost, I probably would’ve given it five [stars].”

But if one little ghost is all we can hold against Two Hands, that probably says more for the movie than it does against it.

Katie Cunningham is a former Junkee editor and current freelance writer based in Sydney who has written for the ABC, Rolling Stone, The Big Issue and more. She is on Twitter

All this week, Junkee is heading back in time to relive the greatest moments in pop culture from 1999. For more 1999 content, head here.