Ivan Mi­lat and his crimes re­turn to TV

The cre­ative team be­hind the first Un­der­belly se­ries turns its at­ten­tion to the life and crimes of se­rial killer Ivan Mi­lat

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

The so-called back­packer mur­der case trans­fixed many of us — it shocked and scared us too — when two run­ners dis­cov­ered a de­cay­ing corpse in the Be­lan­galo State For­est in the NSW south­ern high­lands on Septem­ber 19, 1992. The fol­low­ing day, po­lice con­sta­bles Roger Gough and Suzanne Roberts dis­cov­ered a sec­ond body 30m from the first. The corpses were those of miss­ing Bri­tish hitch­hik­ers Caro­line Clarke and Joanne Wal­ters, who had dis­ap­peared from Syd­ney’s Kings Cross in April 1992. Wal­ters had been stabbed 35 times; Clarke had been shot 10 times in the head.

It was the be­gin­ning of a com­plex in­ves­ti­ga­tion that un­cov­ered five more bru­tally mur­dered vic­tims and even­tu­ally led to the ar­rest and con­vic­tion of se­rial killer Ivan Mi­lat. Now Seven presents its two-part se­ries Catch­ing Mi­lat, based on Sins of the Broth­ers, that fine piece of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion from Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy. Robert Drewe said of the book: “More than just the sus­pense­ful story of some no­to­ri­ously evil mur­ders, this shock­ing and strangely se­duc­tive book is a painstak­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the sav­agery of to­day’s so­ci­ety. This is Australia on the slab.”

That’s what direc­tor Peter An­drikidis and his direc­tor of photography Jo Pick­er­ing give us, too, in this ter­rific un­der­stated drama, sen­si­tive to de­tail and the low-key pas­sages that es­tab­lish mood and char­ac­ter. It’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller look­ing at the forces that cre­ated Mi­lat and led him in­ex­tri­ca­bly to­wards mur­der, and an in­tense and in­tri­cately plot­ted po­lice pro­ce­dural drama set against a back­drop of es­ca­lat­ing me­dia pres­sure and public fear.

Su­per­in­ten­dent Clive Small (Ge­off Mor­rell) heads the in­ves­ti­ga­tion with Task Force Air, af­ter a ca­reer work­ing on some of Australia’s high­est pro­file cases. He is por­trayed as dili­gent and de­cent but in­tensely bu­reau­cratic in his meth­ods: a leader run­ning his large team by the book, a dry in­for­ma­tion manager. De­spite foren­sic clues, tip-offs and a com­plex com­puter sys­tem, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion stalls un­til task­force mem­ber De­tec­tive Se­nior Constable Paul Gor­don (Richard Cawthorne), a loner with the em­pa­thetic gut feel­ing of an old school cop­per, helps iden­tify the sus­pect when the Mi­lat file is re­luc­tantly pushed his way.

The clash be­tween Gor­don and the boss cop is at the cen­tre of the drama, along with an ex­am­i­na­tion of the Mi­lat fam­ily cul­ture, so bizarre and bar­barous and un­reach­ably dogged it would lead in­ex­orably to mur­der.

Th­ese kinds of sto­ries in­volve us in their telling. Like the Un­der­belly se­ries, es­pe­cially the bril­liant first in­stal­ment, also di­rected and pho­tographed by An­drikidis and Pick­er­ing, Catch­ing Mi­lat is not a fic­tion that bor­rows plot pat­terns from real events but a highly drama­tised nar­ra­tive whose ef­fect is partly de­pen­dent on the watcher’s aware­ness that past events are to some de­gree be­ing re­con­structed.

Th­ese days they are de­voured for their dis­sec­tion on so­cial me­dia si­mul­ta­ne­ously, a feed­ing frenzy in which ev­ery mo­ment has an im­me­di­ate re­sponse.

As award-win­ning crime nov­el­ist Megan Ab­bott said re­cently of peo­ple’s ad­dic­tion to true­crime sen­sa­tion The Jinx (still run­ning on Fox­tel’s Show­case chan­nel): “The in­ter­net draws those who like to go down the rab­bit hole. You dig your way into peo­ple’s lives with­out hav­ing to leave your home. You can sit there un­cov­er­ing time­lines and dig­ging down fur­ther and fur­ther. It taps into the in­ner ob­ses­sive in­side so many of us.”

An­drikidis sug­gests the pro­duc­ers were well aware of the moral and eth­i­cal is­sues that some­times be­devil th­ese kinds of sto­ries es­pe­cially when the thrill of be­ing caught up in a story makes you for­get it is some­one’s re­al­ity. Some char­ac­ters have the names of real peo­ple, while oth­ers have been cre­ated or changed for dra­matic ef­fect. (Thank­fully, flash­backs to the mur­ders are brief, im­pres­sion­is­tic glimpses.)

Pick­er­ing works with high con­trast, a grainy tex­ture and som­bre coloura­tion and while there’s a cinema verite feel to it at times, there’s also an un­whole­some, al­most macabre qual­ity, es­pe­cially in the fam­ily scenes. An­drikidis says they were af­ter “the cin­e­matic look” of those great US films of the 1970s such as Ser­pico, Dog Day Af­ter­noon and All the Pres­i­dent’s Men. He calls it, “an al­most a doc­u­men­tary style that means no style over sub­stance — we don’t want you to no­tice the di­rect­ing and the cam­era moves — they are in­trin­sic to the ac­tors’ per­for­mances”. And he gets raw and finely ob­served per­for­mances from his per­form­ers, as he usu­ally does; ac­tors love this man.

Mor­rell’s Clive Small has a sar­donic know­ing­ness about him. Ev­ery­thing is re­duced to the team but his per­sonal pride and am­bi­tion sur­face of­ten un­ex­pect­edly, along with a cer­tain mean­ness of spirit. There can be no out­siders, no one not play­ing their part. This is solid, un­tricky act­ing, squeez­ing all the juice out of the spar­ely writ­ten role, man­ag­ing to make such ded­i­ca­tion seem just a lit­tle sad. Cawthorne’s Gor­don is the driven loner, em­pa­thetic and im­pelled by his will and al­ways re­veal­ing some­thing fur­ther of him­self. And Mal­colm Ken­nard’s Mi­lat is fright­en­ingly real, de­void of histri­on­ics, ob­sessed with con­trol some­how epit­o­mis­ing some kind of fun­da­men­tal or­di­nar­i­ness, as sur­pris­ing as it is dis­qui­et­ing. There’s fine work too from Leeanna Wals­man as Mi­lat’s youngest sis­ter Shirley Soire, whose tough­ness is oddly mov­ing, and Ca­role Skin­ner, craggy and tru­cu­lent — a per­sonal de­light to see her back — as the fam­ily ma­tri­arch.

We’ve been wait­ing for the lav­ish pe­riod cos­tume drama In­dian Sum­mers since it first aired ear­lier this year in Bri­tain to won­der­ful re­views. Chan­nel 4’s most ex­pen­sive se­ries, a kind of Down­ton Abbey set amid the not-quite-pri­vate pas­sions and stir­rings of revo­lu­tion in In­dia in 1932, it’s characterised by a se­duc­tive ele­giac mood of decline. It’s yet an­other highly cin­e­matic saga build­ing on the de­mand for nov­el­like tele­vi­sion dra­mas that un­fold over mul­ti­ple se­ries. From the looks of the first fea­ture-length episode, this is one for the long haul through win­ter.

It’s set in Simla, 2100m above sea level, the Hi­malayan hill-sta­tion that the Bri­tish started vis­it­ing in the 1820s as a refuge from the sum­mer heat. (The first line of dia­logue has an English woman in the train on the way to the town, vig­or­ously fan­ning her­self. “Don’t know how they stand it?” she says, scan­ning the In­dian pas­sen­gers. “Well, you know, it’s dif­fer­ent for them,” says her com­pan­ion.)

Quickly nick­named “the Queen of the Hills”, Simla be­came the Raj’s of­fi­cial sum­mer cap­i­tal, a place of ec­cen­tric grandeur and al­most sur­real Bri­tish whimsy. And more; the Brits proudly claimed hill-sta­tion life was gov­erned by the “three As”: altitude, al­co­hol and adul­tery.

As the se­ries be­gins (and lushly filmed it is, too) the coun­try’s lust­ful, spoiled rul­ing class is gath­er­ing for the sum­mer break, many by train, as a long line of bear­ers stretches out across the foothills car­ry­ing pro­vi­sions on their heads. It’s a su­perb open­ing se­quence, the two images rep­re­sent­ing the two In­dias to the ironic sound­track of Happy Days are Here Again. De­spite the com­pla­cency of the au­to­cratic white bu­reau­cracy, the old di­vi­sions of race and class are be­ing dramatically chal­lenged as In­dia moves to es­tab­lish its own iden­tity.

Filmed en­tirely on lo­ca­tion in Malaysia’s Pe­nang, there’s a won­der­ful so­lid­ity in the set­ting, a mise-en-scene that seems stun­ningly right, to­pog­ra­phy you can al­most feel in your calves — ev­ery­thing seems lived in and there is the same den­sity among the char­ac­ters. It’s a de­voted and beau­ti­ful vi­su­al­i­sa­tion.

Julie Wal­ters is Cyn­thia Cof­fin, the cock­neyspout­ing ma­tri­arch, ruth­less owner of the Royal Club and Machi­avel­lian cen­tre of Simla so­ci­ety. “Cheats! Adul­ter­ers! Slaves of em­pire, here to rule this glo­ri­ous na­tion for an­other six months,” she wel­comes them to her club’s open­ing-night shindig.

We have months of view­ing in store. Cre­ator and writer Paul Rut­man ( Vera, Lewis) has em­barked on a five-se­ries drama that will span 50 episodes un­til In­dian in­de­pen­dence in 1947 and the first episode sets up an epic po­lit­i­cal jour­ney as much as a great TV chron­i­cle.

Don’t ex­pect Down­town Abbey’s choco­late­box cosi­ness or its oc­ca­sion­ally work­man­like di­rec­tion and tech­ni­cal cru­di­ties, the creaky ab­sur­di­ties that grated as the se­ries wore on, the at-times melo­dra­matic plot­ting and con­trived cliffhang­ers.

Rut­man’s tightly plot­ted nar­ra­tive is haunt­ingly un­der­lined with dark un­der­cur­rents and characterised by a de­cid­edly con­tem­po­rary edge. Ten­sion and con­flict hang in the air in this in­tensely filmic se­ries, spare in messy dia­logue, and Rut­man prom­ises no happy end­ing for his large en­sem­ble of splen­did and very wor­thy An­glo-Asian ac­tors.

In­dian Sum­mers, Satur­day, 8.30pm, BBC First. Catch­ing Mi­lat, Sun­day, 8.40pm, con­clud­ing same time the fol­low­ing Sun­day, Seven.

Mal­colm Ken­nard

is fright­en­ingly real as Ivan Mi­lat in Catch­ing Mi­lat

Julie Wal­ters plays Cyn­thia Cof­fin, ruth­less owner of the Royal Club, in In­dian Sum­mers

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