Graeme Blundell is mesmerised by Leah Purcell
Humanity, style and raw talent make Redfern Now a powerful new drama first watch
‘ 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
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