The Kerrigan home will never make the pages of Australian House Beautiful: it sits in the flight path of the Melbourne airport, massive power lines run overhead, the back yard used to be a toxic landfill, and the owner has installed a few -- ahem -- "unauthorized" additions including a greyhound kennel, a massive TV aerial, and a faux chimney.
But despite its faults, it's home -- "The Castle" -- and tow-truck driver Darryl Kerrigan intends to protect it from "compulsory acquisition" (Australia's version of eminent domain) when the airport authority, backed by a large corporation, decides it needs to take the neighborhood for an expanded runway. The family's peaceful existence is shattered by the take-it-or-leave-it offer from the local council for paltry compensation.
I finally got my hands on an original Australian version of this 1997 comedy about a slightly offbeat family's attempt to resist a Kelo-like taking of their home.
Mr. Kerrigan isn't interested in selling. The family doesn't consider the adjacent airport to be a nuisance (it'll be conveniently within walking distance if they have to fly one day), and they optimistically view the overhead power lines as just "a reminder of man's ability to generate electricity." Their neighbor Farouk, a Lebanese immigrant, explains why he doesn't mind deafening airplane noise in his back yard: "They say the plane, they fly overhead, drop the value. I don't care. In Beirut, plane fly overhead, drop bomb. I like this plane."
At first, Kerrigan tries self-help in the local courts.
Judge: What is the case you are putting?
Kerrigan: I told you. I mean, you just can't walk in and take a man's house.
Judge: Mr. Kerrigan, are you disputing the amount of compensation?
Kerrigan: I'm not interested in compensation. I'm saying you can't kick me out.
Judge: What is your argument?
Kerrigan: That's it. That's my argument. You can't kick me out.
Judge: And on what law do you base that argument?
Kerrigan: The Law of bloody common sense!
"You can't buy what I've got," he responds when asked whether the compensation offered is insufficient. But predictably, these arguments get him nowhere, so he retains a well-intentioned but horribly inept local solicitor, who is, by his own estimation, over his head when it comes to eminent domain and constitutional law. He only makes the case worse when he bases his argument on "the vibe" of the constitution. Only when an experienced constitutional barrister takes on the case pro bono do things begin to look up. The final act plays out in Australia's High Court, with the barrister arguing that the Constitution's requirement that takings be accomplished on "just terms" prohibits the seizure of family homes to satisfy corporate desires.
The film doesn't gloss over the legal issues, and touches upon the Mabo and Tasmanian Dam cases, and article 51 of the Australian Constitution. But whether the film is accurate from the standpoint of Australia's law of compulsory acquisition isn't really important, because it accurately catches "the vibe of the thing" (to paraphrase one of the film's more well-known lines) of why home and business owners resist eminent domain.
Some things, I suppose, are universal. The U.S. release is available at Amazon.
[follow up - Professor Gideon Kanner adds his thoughts about the film and Australia's eminent domain laws here]