Law and or­der television reaches the out­back with dra­matic tim­ing, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

AM­BI­TIOUS and hap­pily as­sim­i­lated Abo­rig­i­nal city lawyer Drew El­lis ( Aaron Ped­er­sen) is the latest new­comer to join the chaotic, con­stantly com­pelling world of the Kim­ber­ley Cir­cuit Court, a wor­thy ad­di­tion to the cur­ricu­lum vi­tae of a Can­berrabound le­gal ea­gle. Or so it seems in this wrench­ing SBS out­back drama se­ries.

Leav­ing his ac­com­plished blonde wife ( Kirsty Hill­house) for the world of cat­tle duf­fers, petrol snif­fers, street drinkers and tribal pay­back, he joins the Abo­rig­i­nal Le­gal Ser­vice in the Kim­ber­ley re­gion of north­west­ern Aus­tralia. Sud­denly the charm­ing, af­fa­ble El­lis must con­front not only the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal dis­em­pow­er­ment of re­mote Aus­tralia’s in­dige­nous peo­ple but his own ne­glected black­ness.

The trav­el­ling Cir­cuit Court in­volves mag­is­trate Peter Lock­hart ( Gary Sweet) and his en­tourage of lawyers and court of­fi­cials em­bark­ing on a reg­u­lar five- day, 2000km round trip to dis­pense jus­tice to the al­most forgotten Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties of the far north.

Har­ried and of­ten dis­mayed in their makeshift courts, the of­fi­cials race through as many cases as pos­si­ble in the world’s largest ju­ris­dic­tion, recit­ing the same lines just to keep the con­veyer­belt process mov­ing along in the heat. Plea deals are en­cour­aged and de­fen­dants at­tempt­ing to slow the process are usu­ally given harsher sen­tences as a de­ter­rent to oth­ers.

Like them, the se­ries car­ries with it a ter­ri­ble sense of dis­ap­point­ment. The sys­tem has been bro­ken for a long time and it will be longer be­fore it’s fixed; re­gard­less of the storm that has de­scended over Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia in real life — a more bizarre con­coc­tion of farce, Da­m­a­scene con­ver­sions, al­tru­ism, melo­drama and po­lit­i­cal ad­ven­ture than any television pro­ducer would have at­tempted.

Jus­tice in The Cir­cuit trav­els in a layer of fine red dust as the se­ries, al­most ele­gia­cally at times, ex­plores the hard­ship and is­sues faced by re­mote in­dige­nous peo­ple, es­pe­cially al­co­hol abuse, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and the sex­ual per­se­cu­tion of the young. .

A dev­as­tat­ing sub­plot fo­cuses on the al­most to­tal lack of gov­ern­ment sup­port for health, ed­u­ca­tion and child pro­tec­tion. The con­tin­ual non- ar­rival of Fam­ily and Chil­dren’s Ser­vices is a Godot- like cos­mic joke, ‘‘ the need to feel safe’’ a con­stant sad mantra.

‘‘ It’s a hu­man drama about peo­ple try­ing to live out their lives in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, with dig­nity and hu­mour, even if any fi­nal vic­to­ries don’t re­ally shift them too far,’’ says co- cre­ator and script pro­ducer Kelly Le­fever, who de­vel­oped the sto­ries of the in­dige­nous writ­ers who con­trib­uted. ‘‘ White writ­ers are scared of writ­ing about th­ese is­sues now. The po­lit­i­cally cor­rect line is, of course, that out of re­spect they are not our sto­ries to tell. But we’ve sim­ply had our ar­ses kicked too many times for do­ing them so badly.’’

While ex­pos­ing the un­der­belly of the out­back le­gal sys­tem, The Cir­cuit never re­sorts to crude polemic, al­though it is pos­si­bly more dis­tress­ing be­cause of this grim- jawed ob­jec­tiv­ity. The

oc­ca­sional mo­ments of typ­i­cal Abo­rig­i­nal use of wry, ironic hu­mour that takes the piss out of do­good­ing author­ity add even more poignancy.

For all the moral, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­fronta­tions the $ 4 mil­lion se­ries evokes, The Cir­cuit is made with a kind of de­voted tough love that bluntly avoids mawk­ish­ness. The six- part se­ries ap­peals to an al­most in­sa­tiable con­sumer fas­ci­na­tion for le­gal theatre, high­lighted here by Ca­tri­ona McKen­zie’s vis­ceral di­rec­tion and pierc­ing sense of place.

She is one of only two in­dige­nous peo­ple to have di­rected main­stream TV drama. Her most re­cent as­sign­ment was the won­der­fully ar­tic­u­lated RAN, shown on SBS last year and again in re­peats that fin­ished last week. It was also shot in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances on re­mote lo­ca­tions, us­ing many un­trained ac­tors. ‘‘ Be­cause there’s al­ways a lot of talk­ing and emo­tion, I wanted to free up the court­room,’’ McKen­zie says of The Cir­cuit .

Joe Pickering’s cam­er­a­work en­er­gises th­ese scenes, mov­ing in among the char­ac­ters, sit­ting with them and, as McKen­zie says, ‘‘ breath­ing with them’’. Pickering goes sub­jec­tively to the heart of the drama with rapid zooms and tweaks of fo­cus ( McKen­zie calls it a ‘‘ nudge cam­era’’ style), and a kind of om­nipresent hov­er­ing pres­ence, which is some­times com­pas­sion­ate but of­ten fore­bod­ing.

The way McKen­zie uses the set­ting for The Cir­cuit also is thrilling, its Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ters able to read its beauty as na­tive speak­ers, as it were, in con­trol of its dis­tances and its mys­ter­ies.

‘‘ For me, our ex­pe­ri­ence of the land­scape is not about ex­pan­sive empti­ness,’’ McKen­zie says.

‘‘ It is about our close emo­tional re­la­tion­ship to the coun­try and I wanted to play with the land­scape’s in­ti­macy by play­ing with the de­tail. The ants are hav­ing their own drama, as are the sea urchins; the hu­man sto­ries are sim­ply part of the whole story.’’

Ped­er­sen’s Drew El­lis shows how far lo­cal TV has come in its por­trayal of in­dige­nous Aus­tralians. Though he has cham­pi­oned their chang­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion with a gallery of in­tel­li­gent and of­ten con­fronting per­for­mances, El­lis is his most en­dur­ing. And Sweet is as good as he has been, his Lock­hart able to em­brace the finer things with the Broome aris­toc­racy but un­able to get down in the red Kim­ber­ley dirt.

Kel­ton Pell, too, is charis­matic as ALS li­ai­son of­fi­cer Sam Wal­lan, stri­dent, ar­tic­u­late and gen­uinely men­ac­ing. In a pol­ished TV de­but, Tammy Clark­son is touch­ing as court clerk Bella Noble, who also fronts the band at Broome’s Roe­buck Bay Ho­tel. Tired- eyed Marta Kacz­marek is im­pres­sive as the slightly be­drag­gled, heavy- smok­ing le­gal aid lawyer El­lie Zdy­bicka.

Courts have im­me­di­ate ef­fects that are em­phat­i­cally real — im­pris­on­ment or free­dom — and are premised on the achiev­abil­ity of an ob­jec­tive truth and the suc­cess of ra­tio­nal­ity. But, as The Cir­cuit demon­strates so dra­mat­i­cally, when truth and rea­son­ing are con­tin­gent rather than ob­jec­tive, the le­gal sys­tem ex­pe­ri­ences cri­sis.

He­len Gar­ner, in her por­trayal of a white sex­ual ha­rass­ment court case, The First Stone , wrote of her fan­tasy that there might ex­ist some fo­rum out­side the harsh rules of ev­i­dence that ex­cises con­text; some less rule- bound gath­er­ing of the tribe: ‘‘ a fo­rum in which ev­ery­thing might be said, ev­ery­body lis­tened to; where bursts of laugh­ter and shouts of rage might not be out­lawed; where, if peo­ple agreed to take turns, ev­ery­one might at last, at last, be heard’’.

The Cir­cuit, Sun­day, 9.30pm, SBS.

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