Race against time

Sarah Snook and Oliver Jack­son- Co­hen join forces for a bru­tal, nu­anced his­tory les­son in racial confl ict. AN­DREW FEN­TON re­ports

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - NEWS -

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.”

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