In a riv­et­ing new se­ries Si­mon Burke re­turns to a role he first played on the big screen 40 years ago

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

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

Devil’s Play­ground,

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.

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