Graeme Blundell is mes­merised by Leah Pur­cell

Hu­man­ity, style and raw tal­ent make Red­fern Now a pow­er­ful new drama first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blundell

‘ WRIT­ERS don’t need tricks or gim­micks or even nec­es­sar­ily need to be the smartest fel­lows on the block,’’ Ray­mond Carver, the most in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can short story writer since Ernest Hem­ing­way, said. ‘‘ At the risk of ap­pear­ing fool­ish, a writer some­times needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing — a sun­set or an old shoe — in ab­so­lute and sim­ple amaze­ment.’’

Carver’s work comes to mind as I dip into this ar­rest­ing six-part ABC se­ries, the first writ­ten, di­rected and pro­duced by in­dige­nous Aus­tralians. The se­ries was de­vel­oped by leg­endary British screen­writer Jimmy McGovern (he’s cred­ited as ‘‘ story pro­ducer’’) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Rachel Perkins’s Black­fella Films, pro­duc­ers Dar­ren Dale and Mi­randa Dear and the ABC’s Sally Ri­ley.

Perkins, re­spon­si­ble for the seven-hour doco se­ries First Aus­tralians in 2009 and this year’s fea­ture Mabo — the story of so­cial ac­tivist Eddie Koiki Mabo — that so il­lu­mi­nated the in­dige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence, di­rects two episodes. The other di­rec­tors are ac­tress Leah Pur­cell who stars in the first episode, Fam­ily; Wayne Blair, still on a high from the suc­cess of The Sap­phires; and Ca­tri­ona McKen­zie, who gave us some of the best episodes of The Cir­cuit.

McKen­zie is the ‘‘ set-up di­rec­tor’’ (re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the aes­thetic look and style of a TV se­ries) and she has come up with some­thing quite sin­gu­lar.

Red­fern Now was pho­tographed by Mark Ware­ham, re­spon­si­ble last year for the high­end Un­der­belly: Ra­zor, in which his cin­e­matog­ra­phy was al­most deca­dently hip: atroc­ity made beau­ti­ful. Here it’s all planes and pat­terns of light.

McGovern, au­thor of Cracker and, more re­cently, of The Street and Ac­cused, both screened on the ABC, is one of TV’s revered writ­ers; his re­cent se­ries are eerily rem­i­nis­cent of Carver in their taut­ness, and in the way they high­light how eas­ily lives turn on quirks of fate. Like Carver, McGovern has an in­ter­est in the moral dilem­mas that emerge as con­se­quences of mis­takes, un­wise choices and per­sonal weak­ness, all com­pellingly trans­ferred to this fine new se­ries.

Red­fern Now cen­tres on a di­verse group of in­di­vid­u­als from six fam­i­lies whose lives are changed by a freak­ish or serendip­i­tous oc­cur­rence. Like McGovern’s char­ac­ters in The Street and Ac­cused, they are caught at mo­ments that in time de­fine them: a de­ci­sion to pick up the phone, to ig­nore a cry for help, the re­fusal to sing the na­tional an­them, a mo­ment of sex­ual jeal­ousy, a seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant car ac­ci­dent, a thought that sud­denly con­sumes.

Their re­sponse to these mo­ments threat­ens their work, their love lives, their equi­lib­rium, and their iden­tity. And, like Carver’s ide­alised fig­ure of the writer, we can only gape in amaze­ment at how el­e­gantly those in­volved in this pro­duc­tion have taken these mo­ments and filled them with res­o­nance and mean­ing. Each episode is like a beau­ti­fully con­structed short story that sees straight to the frag­ile hearts of Red­fern Now’s char­ac­ters, with­out the sto­ries be­com­ing sen­ti­men­tal or ob­du­rately po­lit­i­cal.

This is very much McGovern’s way and the young scriptwrit­ers who de­vel­oped Red­fern Now with him in a se­ries of work­shops are to be ap­plauded for hav­ing ab­sorbed so much of his tech­nique. It must have been a con­fronting process.

I heard the some­times abra­sive McGovern speak last year at a con­fer­ence in Mel­bourne where he laid down his rules for screen writ­ing. Ac­cord­ing to McGovern, TV writ­ers don’t work hard enough and should never re­lax. ‘‘ You have to have a good go at ev­ery char­ac­ter,’’ he said, adding, ‘‘ Writ­ing each one should ex­haust you.’’ At the same time, he told the gath­er­ing of screen writ­ers, ‘‘ You have to put ef­fort in to dis­guise the ef­fort.’’

Of­fer­ing more ad­vice, McGovern also made this point: ‘‘ As you write, find the strand that gets you in the gut and build it, build it to a crescendo of rage and emo­tion; pick a char­ac­ter and then tor­ture them.’’

His influence is ev­i­dent in Danielle MacLean’s script for the first episode of Red­fern Now, star­ring Pur­cell as a woman des­per­ate to break out of a life lived against the tide, one in which fu­ture wor­ries and past re­grets threaten to de­stroy her.

For Pur­cell’s Grace, as for so many in­dige­nous Aus­tralians, kin­ship and fam­ily struc­tures are still co­he­sive forces that bind to­gether her peo­ple, even as she and her hus­band, Wes­ley (Alec Doomadgee), have moved away from Red­fern. They have now moved fur­ther into the sub­urbs, with a nice bun­ga­low in a pleas­ant lower mid­dle-class area, a bit of lawn, and Wes­ley in work though cal­lously tak­ing her for granted. Her two kids are spoiled un­car­ing brats. They are off on the Bali hol­i­day of a life­time, the taxi driver im­pa­tiently wait­ing to take them to the air­port. As Grace runs back into the house for one last for­got­ten thing, the phone rings.

It is her bright young nephew Tyler (James Stan­ley), who tells her that his mum, her sis­ter Lily (Sha­reena Clanton), is off her med­i­ca­tion and rav­ing; that he and his lit­tle sis­ter Maddi (Val Wel­don) are des­per­ate for help.

What emerges is a story of lone­li­ness and alien­ation as Grace, lack­ing a vo­cab­u­lary that can re­lease her feel­ings, strug­gles to find a voice. For a time, she lose the im­me­di­ate fam­ily she no longer re­spects (‘‘I love my kids but I don’t like them’’), while her larger, ex­tended fam­ily deny her when she most needs them. All be­cause she picks up that phone.

Pur­cell is mes­meris­ing, to­tally in pos­ses­sion of her per­for­mance, ex­plor­ing all Grace’s flaws with sym­pa­thy and dis­cern­ment. There’s a kind of rib­aldry too, just un­der con­trol in Grace, a ro­bust hu­mour; she man­ages to find a joke in the direst of cir­cum­stances.

Writ­ing about Judi Dench, critic Roger Lewis ob­served that when we talk of the hu­man­ity of that great ac­tress what we mean is her abil­ity to close the gap be­tween self and part. That’s what Pur­cell achieves here. You know she is act­ing — she changes tempo, holds long pauses, skil­fully seeks out hu­mour — but it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be­lieve in Grace as a real per­son.

Doomadgee, a far less ex­pe­ri­enced per­former, is less con­vinc­ing as Wes­ley, but

di­rec­tor McKen­zie is skil­ful with raw tal­ent and she gets from him just the right com­bi­na­tion of un­think­ing chau­vin­ism bal­anced by dogged hu­mour. And Clanton’s Lily is beau­ti­fully ren­dered, her up­set­ting scenes with Pur­cell in her di­lap­i­dated Red­fern ter­race, wit­nessed by her fear­ful chil­dren, are full of abrupt pauses and dis­qui­et­ing si­lences. Su­perbly pho­tographed by Ware­ham, Red

fern Now demon­strates none of the ob­ser­va­tional, al­most re­al­ity TV feel of re­cent McGovern se­ries. I expected some­thing grim and a bit grey in tone. In­stead, the se­ries is sur­pris­ingly stylised and quite beau­ti­ful to look at. ‘‘ We were de­ter­mined to de­velop a style that re­flected the poet­ics of the place; trou­bled, yet beau­ti­ful and with great heart,’’ Ware­ham says of his col­lab­o­ra­tion with McKen­zie.

‘‘ To­gether with the pro­duc­tion de­signer, we de­vel­oped a bold pal­ette through sys­tem­atic test­ing of dif­fer­ent stocks and cam­eras. It was im­por­tant to main­tain the cin­e­matic qual­ity of the scripts.’’

In a stylish de­par­ture from clas­sic TV com­po­si­tion, they came up with a strik­ing look em­pha­sis­ing wide an­gles, with ac­tors of­ten hold­ing po­si­tions in cor­ners of the wide-an­gled fram­ing. To achieve this look, Ware­ham used a new dig­i­tal cam­era, the Arri Alexa (ac­tu­ally built by a film cam­era man­u­fac­turer), which al­lowed the pro­duc­tion team to work at lower light lev­els. ‘‘ This ap­proach suited the re­stric­tions of the lo­ca­tions and helped us achieve a nat­u­ral lighting ef­fect,’’ Ware­ham says. ‘‘ It was very im­por­tant to the en­tire cre­ative team that we had a style for Red­fern Now that was unique, that re­flected the beauty in the community and main­tained a sense of nat­u­ral­ism throughout.’’ YOU may not know it but Mel­bourne au­thor Fer­gus Hume wrote the world’s first best­selling de­tec­tive story, pub­lished in 1886, the year be­fore Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s Sher­lock Holmes made his first ap­pear­ance in A Study

in Scar­let.

Hume’s novel re­mained largely un­known for most of last cen­tury, even though it was writ­ten in a thriv­ing pe­riod of Aus­tralian crime fic­tion. I was sim­i­larly ig­no­rant of this flour­ish­ing un­til I read Stephen Knight’s

Con­ti­nent of Mys­tery (1997), his el­e­gant cri­tique of Aus­tralian crime fic­tion. For the critic, lo­cal crime fic­tion was the op­po­site of Las­seter’s Reef: no­body paid much at­ten­tion to it in the past, but un­told riches lay be­neath the sur­face.

In his in­ves­ti­ga­tions, Knight dis­cov­ered the gold­fields mys­tery, the con­vict saga, the Abo­rig­i­nal de­tec­tive and the squat­ter thriller, which all fea­tured solely in Aus­tralian crime fic­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Knight, it amounted to a

‘‘ very sub­stan­tial body of work: 500 authors would be a rea­son­able es­ti­mate’’.

At the cen­tre of what be­came a boom­ing pub­lish­ing move­ment was Hume’s The Mys­tery

of a Han­som Cab, the first piece of crime fic­tion writ­ten and pro­duced as a novel, now of course the genre’s pri­mary form of pub­li­ca­tion. In this, Aus­tralian pub­lish­ers were ahead of their coun­ter­parts in Lon­don, where the craze in the 1880s was for short sto­ries and news­pa­per and mag­a­zine se­ri­als.

This is all by way of in­tro­duc­ing the ABC’s adaptation of Hume’s novel. It goes to air to­mor­row night and fi­nally gives TV form to a re­mark­able book. Writ­ten by Glen Dol­man, who was also re­spon­si­ble for the ac­com­plished

Hawke a cou­ple of years ago, the adaptation is a skil­ful piece of work, di­rected in fine cin­e­matic style by the award-win­ning Shawn Seet and fea­tur­ing a strong ensem­ble cast.

The Mys­tery of a Han­som Cab is set in the charm­ing but deadly streets of Mar­vel­lous Mel­bourne in 1886. The city is in the grip of an eco­nomic boom fu­elled by du­bi­ous fi­nan­cial spec­u­la­tion and soon to end in calamity. Ad­ver­tised in the novel’s first English edition as ‘‘ a star­tling and re­al­is­tic story of Mel­bourne so­cial life’’, the story opens with two gentle­men climb­ing into a han­som cab on a misty night. One clam­bers out; the other is found mur­dered when the cab­bie ar­rives in St Kilda.

The vic­tim is Oliver Whyte (Brett Climo), de­vi­ous, lo­qua­cious and a lit­tle self­ag­gran­dis­ing, who has some­how en­tered the good graces of the wealthy Mark Fret­tlby (John Wa­ters). An agree­ment is reached in which the landowner will sup­port Whyte’s mar­riage to his cher­ished daugh­ter, Madge (Jes­sica De Gouw), even though she is dis­mayed by the match. ‘‘ This has to be,’’ her fa­ther tells her, even though she is al­ready in love with the sen­si­tive, hard­work­ing young Ir­ish­man Brian Fitzger­ald (Oliver Ack­land).

‘‘ I will not let this hap­pen, I prom­ise you that,’’ the young man tells her.

A com­plex ‘‘ golden age’’ style mys­tery un­folds — Hume also pre­fig­ured the Christie era — with many char­ac­ters serv­ing as sus­pects and a fam­ily se­cret at its heart. It me­an­ders along at times, com­ing most alive in Mel­bourne’s squalid back lanes with its cast of grotesques, and in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the al­most comic de­tec­tives, the clumsy, pig­headed Sa­muel Gorby (Shane Ja­cob­son) and the snake-like, ob­ser­vant De­tec­tive Kil­sip (Felix Wil­liamson).

I don’t quite un­der­stand why it is, but there is a ten­dency to slow down the di­a­logue in our pe­riod TV adaptations so it sounds too self­con­sciously ar­chaic. And at times, for all Seet’s cun­ningly cin­e­matic di­rec­tion, the fine cam­er­a­work of Jaems Grant and a su­perb score by Cezary Sku­biszewski, the tele­movie seems just a lit­tle old-fash­ioned. The act­ing is oddly wooden at times and it does sound oc­ca­sion­ally as if we might be back in the days of the Old Tote or the Union The­atre Reper­tory Com­pany, when we all trot­ted out our favourite ac­cents on cue. More over­lap­ping de­liv­ery and vari­a­tion in pace, more con­ver­sa­tional nat­u­ral­ism, would have helped pro­pel the some­times mea­sured nar­ra­tive. But then Hume’s strength was ob­vi­ously not con­vinc­ing di­a­logue but a mas­ter­ful plot.

Red­fern Now, Thurs­day, 8.30pm, ABC1 The Mys­tery of a Han­som Cab, Sun­day, 8.30pm, ABC1

Alec Doomadgee and Leah Pur­cell in the

first episode of

Red­fern Now

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.