TWISTS IN THE DEVIL’S TALE
In a riveting new series Simon Burke returns to a role he first played on the big screen 40 years ago
HE only reason you would ever go to see an Australian film is to avoid the crowds,” my old friend Frank Thring used to say with that famous curled lip. This was backstage at Melbourne’s Russell Street Theatre, the headquarters of the Union Theatre Repertory Company, later the Melbourne Theatre Company, and Frank had of course worked internationally with directors such as William Wyler, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann on movies such as Ben-Hur and El Cid. A Victorian exaggeration never able to release the souls of his characters, he wore costumes brilliantly. He possessed a magical ability to adjust the folds and drapery, giving the fabric certain deft tugs and pats so that even a humble outfit took on a quality of magnificence.
It was the late 1960s and in a few short years Tim Burstall, Bruce Beresford and Fred Schepisi were making their first movies to a mixture, initially at least, of disdain and indifference. Burstall and Beresford got a local industry going with the hugely popular “ocker” movies Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, lowbrow, comically abrasive and larrikin. But there was a sigh of relief in more genteel circles when Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground was released in 1976, soon followed by Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which showed Australians (at least Australian private school girls) as being as polite and reserved as their English counterparts.
As David Williamson wrote to me: “It was felt that at last the demeaning exposure of our crude underbelly was at an end.” It wasn’t over, of course, as Beresford’s successful larrikin movie of David’s play Don’s Party was just around the corner. But Schepisi’s movie was lauded and awarded for its sensitivity and cinematic sophistication, a film of culture and quality; in some circles it is still seen as the beginning of a renaissance in our film industry.
The movie tells the story of Tom Allen, played by Simon Burke, a good-natured and devout 13-year-old struggling with the demands and constraints of training for the priesthood. The screenplay was based on Schepisi’s experience as a teenager in a Catholic seminary in Melbourne in the 1950s, drawing directly on his insights along with those of the author Thomas Keneally, another ex-seminarian, who appears in the film as Father Marshall.
It’s a classic coming-of-age film, dealing with puberty and sexual awakening, but it also con- cerns sexual repression — not only of the students in the seminary but also of the priests and brothers who run it.
“For me the film’s main contention I guess is that sex is a natural thing, an unstoppable force, and that to repress it institutionally can only lead to such things as madness, perversion, alcohol abuse and, taken to its most extreme, death,” Burke says. Now one of Australia’s leading actors, he will introduce the seldom-seen movie on Sunday on Foxtel’s Fox Classics.
He is also executive producer and star of Devil’s Playground, a seven-hour TV series that takes the character Burke played almost 40 years ago and reimagines him in the late 80s when the Catholic Church in Australia was still
The Devil’s Playground, uneasily coming to terms with the changes of Vatican II.
Burke says that for years he wondered what might have happened to Allen when he grew up. One night he broached the thought at a dinner with the entrepreneurial Brian Walsh, Foxtel’s director of TV, who asked him to pitch the idea as a series. The result is an enthralling psychological thriller — daring, topical and willing to risk giving offence — produced by Penny Chapman, Helen Bowden and Blake Ayshford for Matchbox Pictures. They also gave us The Slap, that powerful adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s dense novel cleverly converted into TV-sized grabs, just as upsetting as his hefty book, only easier to digest.
Devil’s Playground also promises drama that should resonate emotionally, set in that turbulent period when sections of the church believed it must be part of the modern world, seeking to engage rather than condemn, while others in its ranks fiercely adhered to the notion of the church as a fortress.
Allen, now in his 40s and recently widowed, is a respected Sydney psychiatrist and father of two. A practising Catholic, he accepts an offer from Bishop John McNally (John Noble), a persuasive advocate for reform, to become a counsellor of priests after rumours gather around Father Marco Adrassi (Andrew McFarlane), school chaplain and a popular institution at inner-city St Venables Boys School.
It’s crisply written by Ayshford and directed by Rachel Ward, who collaborated so empathetically on the brilliant World War I drama An Accidental Soldier, and again she directs with the artful effortlessness that is becoming her hallmark. They set their story firmly in the traditional thriller genre but bring to it a kind of Scandinavian noir sense of ambiguity, revealing a cast that changes and develops in response to experiences after a boy goes missing.
During Allen’s tenure, opposed by a conspiracy of conniving priests, he uncovers the greatest scandal to threaten the modern church — the systematic abuse of minors by the clergy. The crisis for all involved is one of personal ethics and faith, and the series obviously looks to explore how the simple matter of justice comes to be perverted by the complicated agenda to protect the church.
By the end of the first episode we know we’re in for a profound investigation of innocence and guilt with much purchase on real events: the royal commission. But rather than an expose, Devil’s Playground is an exploration that reveals how pastoral carers struggle to come to terms with these scandals. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council finally may have filtered through Australian parishes but a cohort of powerful clergymen, headed by Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Quaid ( Don Hany), is looking to seize power.
At times there’s so much intrigue backstage at the cathedral, amid the incense and ecclesiastical pomp, it starts to play out like The Borgias meets The Sopranos. But out in the real world of the series, where children suffer and parents try to adhere to their faith, it’s more reminiscent of Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall’s recent absorbing British thriller. That also was part police procedural, part psychological exploration of loss and the terrible demands of grief that Chibnall tied together with a dawning, creeping realisation of dread. In Devil’s Playground too, right from the start, we trust no one, not even Tom Allen. Each character needs to be exonerated.
The scenes are crisply elided, but as in Broadchurch, Devil’s Playground — like the best TV drama — forces us to ask questions. What does the light mean after the boy dives into the deep water at the start? Who is the slightly unkempt young man who inopportunely appears several times? Why does the homeless teenager shout “Ask him where he is” at Brother Paul (Leon Ford), known for his friendly, tactile approach to his school charges, when he and Allen go searching for the missing boy? And what is it about McNally, the man of the people, a progressive riding the horse of Vatican II to a “new church”? Is he a touch too honourable to be a good person in this moral quagmire?
The acting is splendid throughout a large ensemble cast, which includes veterans Jack Thompson and Max Cullen, but like the best thrillers it’s really all plot. Ward and Ayshford give it almost forensic attention, nothing left undone, every moment crammed with purpose. They do it with a kind of rhythm and euphony, enhanced by composer Max Lyandvert’s music, steering the complexities of the narrative with fluidity and appropriateness. And by the end of episode one, the plot is twisting and turning in mesmerising fashion, and the clock is sadly ticking down.