Film & TV

Film Review: Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man

Somerton Man

A beautifully put-together documentary about an enduring mystery.

In December 1948, the body of man was found on Somerton Beach. His cause of death was unknown. Even his manner of death (homicide, suicide, accident etc) was unknown. He had no form of ID on him: even the labels on his clothing had been cut off. In his pocket was a small piece of paper with the words “tamam shud” printed on them.

To this day, The Somerton Man, as he came to be known, has never been identified. We still don’t know who he was, or how or why he died.

Adelaide film-makers Wayne Groom and Carolyn Bilsborow have spent the last two years making a documentary about this endearing mystery, which has captured imaginations, not just here in Adelaide, but around the globe.

Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man is a beautifully crafted documentary. Director Bilsborow has not taken the relatively easy path of swamping the viewer with theories and explanations. Rather, she has peeled back the more ludicrous explanations in order to present us an exploration of the seductive quality of mystery itself. As researcher and interviewee Dr Derek Abbott himself says, the answer to this story may be “quite mundane”, but it is the missing pieces that so attract us.

Bilsborow structures the work around interviews with Abbott, descendants of “the nurse”, whose phone number was found on Somerton Man, and those who were there at the time (some who are now 100!) including the then young jockey who first found the body, the taxidermist who made the death-mask, and one of the original detectives.

At the film’s premiere in Adelaide recently, some of these people were present, which gave the case a sense of immediacy, moving it out of the realm of the (albeit fascinating) historical. Producer Groom announced that State Attorney-General Vicki Chapman is reconsidering a request for exhumation. As Bilsborow said “It would be nice to at least give Somerton Man back his name.”

At 48 minutes this film is long enough to feel meaty, but without dragging. There is no fat in the screenplay as it hurtles along at a solid pace. Bilsborow’s editing is lean, mean and precise. But despite this efficiency, there is a beauty and charm to the work, much of which comes from the interviewees being treated as individuals with stories, rather than as conduits for information.

For anyone who knows nothing about Somerton Man, this is a great introduction. And for those who have long been haunted by it, it will add more layers.

This is a top-notch, locally produced documentary feature.


Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man is available for home viewing.

Click here to access on Vimeo

For further information, or to purchase on DVD, email [email protected] or phone Australian International Pictures on 0403771435

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