Race against time
Sarah Snook and Oliver Jackson- Cohen join forces for a brutal, nuanced history lesson in racial confl ict. ANDREW FENTON reports
LIKE his convict character in The Secret River, British actor Oliver Jackson- Cohen’s fi rst encounter with a spear- wielding Aboriginal man was in thick scrub in the dead of night.
For Jackson- Cohen it was a night shoot in the You Yangs last year and the Aboriginal actor’s name was Billy Black, from Ramingining in Arnhem Land. For his character, Will Thornhill, it was his fi rst night in the bush near Sydney Cove more than two centuries earlier. But the experience of fi rst contact gave the 28- year- old actor ( Mr Selfridge) a graphic insight into how the settlers’ mortal fear of the “other” contributed to tragedy.
“It was terrifying ( for them) because it was so alien and I remember in that moment going, ‘ I kind of understand how you would just push away’, you would just go, ‘ I don’t want anything to do with that … that is too scary’. And the consequences are that people react in terrible ways,” he says.
Jackson- Cohen stars alongside Aussie Sarah Snook ( Predestination) in new ABC miniseries The Secret
River, based on Kate Grenville’s acclaimed novel.
It tells the story of Thornhill who loses everything in England and is sentenced to life in New South Wales. Thanks to his tenacious wife Sal ( Snook) who helps secure a pardon, Thornhill is able to start rebuilding his wealth as a free settler along the Hawkesbury River. But there the settlers come into confl ict with the original owners, the Darug people.
Snook is one of Australia’s most sought- after actors at the moment, with upcoming roles in Hollywood biopic Steve Jobs, Kate Winslet’s Aussie fi lm The Dressmaker and comedy
Oddball with Shane Jacobson. But she says she made time for The Secret River because it’s such an important story that needs to be told.
For Snook, the aspect that stood out was how the race issue is framed around two families, the Thornhills and their “mirror image” – elder Grey Beard ( Trevor Jamieson) and his tribe.
“It’s bringing it back down to a human level where it is about people who happen to be of a diff erent colour and race trying to make their families and loved ones survive in confl ict and hardship,” she says.
While some of Snook’s friends criticised the novel as “too sentimental” for focusing on Will and Sal’s love story, she says: “You need that accessibility and that love story to fi nd your way into the subject of race relations in Australia. It is not an easy topic to talk about.”
The story plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, where a noble but fl awed character comes under intense pressure that inexorably leads to a fatal conclusion. Greed plays a part too, of course.
Originally planned as a feature fi lm with Fred Schepisi, The Secret River ended up as a miniseries, shot mid- last year. The pristine and remote Lake Tyers in far- east Gippsland stands in for the Hawkesbury River of the time.
They’re fi lming some pretty intense scenes when TV Guide visits, with violent racist Smasher ( comedian Tim Minchin) completely nude at one point; later he shoots at a defenceless Aboriginal man stating: “It’s no diff erent to shooting a dog”.
In the afternoon there’s a closed set to fi lm a scene where Thornhill discovers Smasher has an Aboriginal sex slave, who he keeps chained up and beats. “Reading the script, usually as an actor you can fi nd the humanity in any kind of evil person, but I could not in Smasher,” Snook says. “He’s just a repulsive, repulsive character. I didn’t like him and I never will. But Tim managed to fi nd a humanity in him.”