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 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.
is frighteningly real as Ivan Milat in Catching Milat
Julie Walters plays Cynthia Coffin, ruthless owner of the Royal Club, in Indian Summers