THE good biographer assumes nothing, trusts no one, checks every detail but never lets a good story escape. The best are always alert for what literary critic Peter Steele once called “riddle, quizzicality and quirk”. Biography, like historical romance, must have a certain imaginative flair.

This is particularly true of the quality television biography, the small screen’s version of the cinema’s biopic. The trick is to discover what you are able to, tell what you can and speculate intelligently about the rest. It is more easily said than done. It is extremely difficult to cram a life into two hours of TV.

Well, with Mabo, director Rachel Perkins (First Australians, Bran Nue Day) and her equally accomplished writer Sue Smith (Bastard Boys, RAN) deliver a biography that not only presents a compelling historical narrative but a love story, a courtroom drama and a political thriller. They do it with bravura and a cinematic style that is often mesmerising. Mabo is produced by Perkins, along with Darren Dale and Miranda Dear in innovative production company Blackfella Films.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the historic High Court decision on June, 3, 1992, that recognised Aboriginal native title over land, the film’s subject is Eddie Koiki Mabo, played brilliantly by Jimi Bani (The Straits).

Mabo is a name we all recognise whenever land rights or native title are raised in conversation, but most of us probably have little real knowledge of this national hero. I certainly did not, to my shame. Just as I knew nothing of the other heroic figures Perkins celebrated in her remarkable TV documentary series First Australians, the history of the effects of white settlement told largely from the perspective of black Australia. There, she told us of lives fiercely carved into our historical story, of battlegrounds marked by bones and the part played by indigenous people in events that are part of our inherited imagination, or should be.

Mabo – fluent, stylish and lucid – is engrossing television. It is heartbreaking and inspiring, a story of courage, resilience and eventually tragedy that illuminates the indigenous experience, especially for those of us who know so little of it.

Eddie Mabo was the relentless, sometimes fractious Torres Strait Islander who, despite leaving school at 15, spearheaded the challenge to the long-held fiction of terra nullius. This was the presumptuous notion that Australia was an empty place when first occupied by white people; that it was a legal desert before 1788 so title to the land could be annexed by occupation.

It was an old story that became fiercely contested by a man so passionate about family and home, and so unfazed by the intimidating protocols of the courts, that he fought an entire nation and its legal system.

Mabo, always considered a troublemaker by the white authorities, came from Murray Island, the easternmost of the rocky bits of land that break the turquoise surface of Torres Strait. For many of us it has always possessed the aura and romantic promise of a Robert Louis Stevenson South Seas adventure, but for Mabo and his Meriam people it meant far more. They worked their gardens and fished their waters as their families had for centuries, and believed the island belonged to their ancestors and to them.

This is where the film opens, after a title sequence composed of period newsreel clips from after the Mabo decision, threatening Armageddon for Australia. It establishes the beauty and tranquillity of Murray, though young Eddie is in trouble almost from the start.

After falling foul of the paternalistic authorities, especially deputy protector Paddy (Rob Carlton in menacing, lip-curling top form), Eddie lives most of his life in exile on mainland Australia. Initially working on the construction of outback railways and then on trochus trawlers, he’s always reading, studying the meaning of words as he somehow educates himself. He is determined to make a difference, never content to remain a blackfella in a whitefella world.

In one simple resonant scene, nursing a dictionary as he leans against a tin shed on a dusty red plain, he becomes entranced with the word land, its etymology and significance. He embraces activism, working with members of the Communist Party (there’s also a lot of grogging-on with his commo mates), the only white political party to support Aboriginal campaigns at the time. The quest for his ancestral land begins when he realises that, despite his traditional ties, the land is legally the crown’s. He takes on Queensland’s corrupt Bjelke-Petersen government, the commonwealth government and the conservatism of the authorities on Murray Island.

Perkins and Smith cleverly lay out this narrative against the intimate and (mostly) tender love story of Eddie and his wife, Bonita (Deborah Mailman). They meet as teenagers, and love each other through three decades and the rearing of 10 children. It’s a little-known story but one with which Perkins, the daughter of respected and passionate indigenous activist Charlie Perkins, obviously identified.

Eddie and Bonita’s relationship was complex and the filmmakers don’t shy away from documenting the turbulence, and often sadness, between them as Eddie’s cause begins to devour him. The domestic stress increases as he struggles, sometimes ineptly, to feed his family with fish from the river and yams from a secret vegie patch he builds in the bush. Everything else goes into his battle with legal convention, vested interests and an unyielding judicial system.

Smith’s script is tight and concentrated, eschewing dialogue except for telling emblematic exchanges, with no unnecessary beats or redundant pauses. But she never hurries a moment when it can tell us something. And Perkins tells this story beautifully, with sly wit and without rancour or bitterness, her direction characterised by a delicate balance between expectation and surprise.

Much of the emotional nuance is provided by Antony Partos’s musical underscore of moody choirs, chants, strings and that instrument indigenous to the Torres Strait, the large drum known as the warup. The music is like magic pixie dust, intensifying the emotions and then evaporating until Perkins calmly summons it back. At times the story is told in an almost musical form with bursts of choral singing accompanying monumental close-ups of Mabo intercut with images of his land, the outback and the sea. The image becomes the content. But character is never lost in the magnitude of what becomes an epic event, and a superlative piece of filmmaking.

Perkins works just as empathetically with Andrew Commis (The Slap), her director of photography, as she does with her composer and actors, taking us somewhere that’s like nothing most of us will have seen before – a real-feeling place with a dense lived-in texture (many of the film’s locations are places where the action happened).

Bani simply owns the role, inhabits Eddie Mabo and collaborates with his spirit. Mailman, always so vivacious and mischievous as an actor, brings a heartbreaking integrity to the often put-upon Bonita, long-suffering but with a spirit that is never broken. A distinguished ensemble cast fills the minor roles, including Colin Friels, Miranda Otto and Felix Williamson. They bring solidity and depth to their characters; simply by being there they allow us to project ourselves into scenes. This is a piece of gorgeous filmmaking, full of the pleasures of place and story, and so skilfully orchestrated that at times it’s breathtaking.