EVEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE JUDGMENTAL EYES OF OLD MEN IN A BEATEN PUB
ONE of the ironies of adaptations of successful novels for the screen is that filmmakers often seem less than enthusiastic about maintaining the spirit of the source material. Often just one aspect survives: a character, a plot outline, or perhaps a sense of place.
Happily for fans, crime novels have proved to be the heartiest of literary species, able to survive all manner of transplants. Thankfully, this is the case with this faithful and beguiling adaptation of Peter Temple’s boundarydefying, stand-alone novel The Broken Shore.
Which is just as well: the prodigiously talented South African-born Temple happens to be one of the world’s most respected literary crime novelists, with a bag of prizes to prove it. The Broken Shore picked up the prestigious Gold Dagger award of the Crime Writers Association (UK) in 2007; his next novel, Truth, landed Australia’s most coveted literary prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2010.
Produced by Andrew Knight and Ian Collie for Essential Media & Entertainment and persuasively directed by Rowan Woods, The Broken Shore is a masterful piece of TV drama. It’s an evocative thriller of family and place set against a background of police corruption, racism and the horror of pedophilia.
Mind you, Collie (who somehow produced the Tom Hanks feature Saving Mr Banks at the same time) and Knight should have a handle on Temple by now. Last year they successfully brought to the screen two of his Jack Irish novels for the ABC, Bad Debts and Black Tide, featuring Temple’s serial hero, the criminal lawyer, gambler, barracker, fixer, peoplefinder, debt collector and part-time cabinetmaker Irish, played so well by Guy Pearce. (A third, Dead Point, is to air this year.)
Irish is one of crime literature’s great complex characters — hard and sardonically amusing. He appeared in novels that were as good as crime fiction anywhere, books with a capacity for subtle political and cultural comment, a weathered concern for the disparity between law and justice, and a passion for some sort of order in social chaos. And the producers did him proud, delighting Temple’s many fans by playing it pretty straight. There was no messing with Temple’s form and no half-baked attempt to ‘‘ reimagine’’ the novels in postmodern fashion, alter their settings or lose or overstate the wry humour.
‘‘ I am drawn to the sparse and the dry, and the idea that if you concentrate you can do powerful things with a few sticks and bones,’’ Temple once said. And Knight’s adaptation of The Broken Shore again transposes the author’s hard, brittle poetic style precisely, finding a visual correlative for his sparse, detached, elided language.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Temple keeps his similes and metaphors simple, neatly tailored enhancements of atmosphere, but his moral seriousness has such focus he converts ideas into sharply observed details. That’s what Knight gets so right, letting the mise en scene speak for itself in a wonderfully foam at the violent heart of the Broken Shore of the title.
Temple’s imaginary towns are somewhere at the bottom of Victoria, the land naked before the south easterlies and wild winter gales off the Southern Ocean. And the film was evocatively shot by the AFI-winning cinematographer Martin McGrath, largely around Victoria’s Port Campbell National Park region, including Port Fairy where southern right whales breach off the coast coast during the winter months.
Everything in the path of the whipped-up winds leans to leeward, with only the hardcore left in the coastal towns: the unemployed; recidivist junkies doing the local shops; and the drunk; even the ravens have the judgmental eyes of old men in a beaten pub.
Cashin befriends a stoic swagman (Dan Wyllie) who begins to help him reconstruct the once grand bluestone palace of a house his great-grandfather’s brother built, the family home he dynamited to the ground.
When Charles Bourgoyne (Ralph Cotterill) cinematic piece of writing, superbly realised by Wood’s deceptively understated direction.
Injured Melbourne homicide detective Joe Cashin, played by Don Hany with that now distinctive aching vulnerability — the reason the hearts of female fans flutter so frantically on meeting him — is on ersatz working leave. He’s probably out to grass, if the truth be known, after a big city investigation went bad, his former partner dead and buried. On a mental health sabbatical, he’s playing the local country cop, back in his old haunts around Kenmare, Cromarty and Port Monro, where he grew up.
His memories of the perennial summers, schoolyard alliances, dalliances and first kisses are clouded by the death of his father Mick, who committed suicide at the Kettle, the surging place of grey-green water skeined with is brutally murdered, the city cop finds himself groping blindly through of a series of horrors. Central to his investigations are three boys from the nearby Aboriginal community and a tragic camp for children run by a group called the Moral Companions in 1977 at Port Monro Heights.
As a detective Cashin is methodical, obsessive and instinctive, but melancholy, the spiritual curse of Cashin’s family, hovers around him, along with the insistent pain of his injuries. (Temple once confided to me that Cashin is actually the name of a well-known Melbourne family of undertakers.) ‘‘ He had said a million mantras, against pain, against thought, against memory, against the night that would not surrender its dark,’’ is the way Temple describes it in the novel — but Hany does it with that sad squint-eyed look, still so familiar to anyone who saw performance in East West 101.
Hany is especially good here, collaborating with Temple’s Joe Cashin, really, an inseparable fusion of fact and fiction, a kind of telepathic exchange taking place. None of our other leading actors, except possibly Richard Roxburgh and Colin Friels, combines both technique and presence to the same degree.
His is a committed yet subtle performance of a man going forwards while looking back, forever assailed by the sour smells of homicide, a man looking for a home, looking for a father.
The surrounding ensemble cast is classy as well, real star power on display, each with an identifiable film persona that continues beyond their many roles in TV and cinema.
Claudia Karvan has just the right jittery intelligence for Helen Castleman, an impulsive former corporate lawyer who has returned to the community in which she grew up and has bought the farm next to Cashin’s. Born into privilege, she wears entitlement easily. She once planted a kiss on the cop when they were young but now approaches local justice issues with fervour. Anthony Hayes, good in both Animal Kingdom and Devil’s Dust, is so vilely convincing as the hostile Senior Detective Rock Hopgood, boss of the local criminal investigation unit, he makes you squirm and feel uneasy. He’s charismatic, arrogant and charmingly belligerent and, like so many conservatives, hides his prejudice behind a disdain for political correctness.
Noni Hazlehurst is Sybil Cashin, Joe’s stoic mother, battered and bruised by the death of her husband, her face showing every hurt. Hazlehurst now reminds me a little of Judi Dench — she’s both the most and least contrived of actors.
And bluff Erik Thomson is a revelation as Inspector Stephen Villani, the head of Homicide in Melbourne, Cashin’s boss before the accident that forced his Port Monro sabbatical. So engaging for years in Packed to the Rafters, Thomson makes Villani an attractively vigorous personality, human enough to be likable and brave enough to be admirable.
Let the novelist have the final word, and as always he’s sharp and brief. He tells me: ‘‘ I think Essential Media have done a terrific job with TBS — great writers, great cast, really intelligent direction and photography.’’
Don Hany in