Kate Grenville’s epic tragedy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

Seven years in the mak­ing, the tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of Kate Grenville’s best­selling and highly cel­e­brated colo­nial-era “first-con­tact” novel The Se­cret River has ar­rived, and does it full jus­tice. It’s an epic tragedy in which a good man is com­pelled by forces he can­not con­trol to par­tic­i­pate in a crime in which ter­ri­ble things hap­pen. The tragedy is the in­evitable re­sult of what Grenville calls the “to­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing and mu­tual lack of com­pre­hen­sion, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing re­la­tion­ship to land”, be­tween the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and the early set­tlers.

The Booker-nom­i­nated novel has been adapted into this se­ri­ously good tele­vi­sion minis­eries by two of Australia’s most tal­ented screen­writ­ers, Jan Sardi (Os­car nom­i­nated for Shine) and Mac Gud­geon ( Killing Time), and di­rected by the ac­com­plished Daina Reid ( Pa­per Gi­ants: The Birth of Cleo) across two en­thralling episodes. It’s a search­ing ex­plo­ration of char­ac­ter and the shadow cast by the fear, vi­o­lence and the in­di­vid­ual iso­la­tion of the early set­tlers.

It will leave you moved, if un­com­fort­able, and like pro­ducer Stephen Luby, you might find an ur­gency to tell the story to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble if they don’t see it. “I wanted oth­ers to ex­pe­ri­ence the in­sight and em­pa­thy that it had evoked in me,” he says of read­ing the novel in 2006. “An il­lu­mi­na­tion not of his­tor­i­cal facts and so­cial is­sues, but into the pro­found feel­ings and pres­sure faced by all ‘the play­ers’, both in­dige­nous and white, in the early days of Euro­pean set­tle­ment in this coun­try, and which still echoes among us to­day.”

Be­gin­ning in 1805, it fol­lows poverty-stricken Thames waterman Wil­liam Thorn­hill (Oliver Jack­son-Co­hen), who be­gins a life sen­tence in the pe­nal colony of NSW as­signed to his brave if ob­du­rate wife, Sal (Sarah Snook). He finds work as an oars­man on Syd­ney Har­bour while Sal es­tab­lishes a rum stall, ek­ing out a living in grog, the true cur­rency of the colony.

Australia is no fair princess of a place but born and bred as an ill-favoured by-blow of the squalor and crim­i­nal­ity of 18th-cen­tury industrial Eng­land and the poverty of Ire­land. It’s a sys­tem dom­i­nated by the sav­agery of the lash, bru­tal­is­ing the com­mu­nity of of­fi­cers, clergy, of­fi­cials and set­tlers, and life for Will and Sal be­gins as a bar­ren jail in a harsh, strange land.

Six years later, Will is par­doned and as an “eman­cip­ist” (a con­vict given an ab­so­lute or con­di­tional par­don, or whose sen­tence had ex­pired and who could then could own land and as­sert them­selves in the same way as the free) be­comes en­tranced with the idea of ac­tu­ally own­ing some­thing for him­self and his fam­ily. For him Australia be­comes a mirac­u­lous home of great ex­pec­ta­tions; Sal, though, dreams only of a re­turn to Lon­don.

Dis­cov­er­ing the rock-and-for­est-hid­den mouth to the se­cret river of the ti­tle (the Hawkes­bury in fact, its course hid­den from the first ex­plor­ers) in the com­pany of an­other exwa­ter­man, the soft-voiced bear of a man Thomas Black­wood (Lachy Hulme), he is en­tranced with the pos­si­bil­ity of own­ing land of his own. He spies a plot he calls Thorn­hill’s Point, turn­ing to the land to stake a claim for equal­ity in the emerg­ing new so­cial or­der.

But af­ter the fam­ily has sailed north from Syd­ney, it’s clear that shap­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, chang­ing the face of the land, is fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties. His at­tempts to ca­jole the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, the Dharug, are clumsy and he seems in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing how whites might live with blacks. “If you take a lit­tle, you have to give a lit­tle,” his friend Black­wood con­stantly im­presses upon him. He is equally un­com­fort­able with the di­vi­sive racism of the other set­tlers along the river.

The pro­duc­tion is dis­tin­guished by an al­most mu­si­cal in­ter­weav­ing of themes, car­ried by Burkhard Dall­witz’s great score, all strings, pi­ano, flutes and whis­tles. It’s as though Reid and her writ­ers have re­fused to pedes­tri­anly trans­pose what­ever was trans­pos­able from the novel but have found dar­ing cin­e­matic equiv­a­lents. Bruce Young’s photography is a lus­cious scenic ta­pes­try of muted colour and light, of­ten verg­ing on the ab­stract. His cam­eras cap­ture both the hol­low­ness and open­ness of space, the op­pres­sive im­mov­able­ness of the land­scape, as well as the illusion of free­dom of­fered by the river.

Reid and her es­timable col­lab­o­ra­tors (the pro­duc­tion de­sign of the dis­tin­guished vet­eran Her­bert Pin­ter is es­pe­cially im­pres­sive) gets the spell of the bush just right, that ma­trix of sen­ti­ments and ideals, that al­most re­li­gious mys­tique that would in time be­come a sym­bol of a dis­tinc­tive na­tional char­ac­ter.

The strug­gle with the re­cal­ci­trant land has rarely been drama­tised with such res­o­nance: the lone­li­ness of bush life and the way the early set­tlers who came to change and sub­due the land were them­selves changed by it in the end, and com­pelled to sub­mit to its de­mands.

And the sense of the Abo­rig­ine as spir­i­tual su­pe­rior is pal­pa­ble through the se­ries, ma­jes­ti­cally con­veyed in the mes­meris­ing per­for­mance of Trevor Jamieson as Gu­mang, or Grey Beard, the most se­nior el­der of the Dharug tribe, all mean­ing in­vested in sa­cred land. All the per­for­mances are splen­did. Jack­son-Co­hen’s Will is a man of shy, cour­te­ous mod­esty and he al­lows us to main­tain our em­pa­thy for him even when we know of the heinous events that must un­fold around him. Snook is an in­spired actress; she can turn her face into a dozen dif­fer­ent ones: beau­ti­ful, pain-rid­dled, ethe­real and earth-moth­er­ish.

Hulme flaunts his vir­tu­os­ity once more with his Black­wood, an enig­matic and sur­pris­ing fig­ure who has found re­demp­tion in a new land, a per­for­mance of muted sad­ness and grace.

And the writer and mu­si­cian Tim Minchin is bril­liant as the bit­ter and venge­ful Smasher Sul­li­van, driven by his pro­found ha­tred of the Hawkes­bury Abo­rig­ines, won­der­fully and dis­turbingly malev­o­lent. I was re­minded of some­thing Mark Twain said about this coun­try, that it does not read like his­tory but like the most beau­ti­ful lies: “It is full of sur­prises, ad­ven­tures, and in­con­gruities, and con­tra­dic­tions, and in­cred­i­bil­i­ties; but they are all true; they all hap­pened.” Paul Clarke is a highly suc­cess­ful cre­ator of doc­u­men­tary TV, among the most re­source­ful and in­no­va­tive film­mak­ers we have. His style is sub­jec­tive, ir­rev­er­ent and em­pa­thetic, mak­ing our so­cial his­tory re­lat­able; Clarke al­ways looks for pas­sion and hu­mour in what he dis­cov­ers and presents it with end cin­e­matic flair. And it’s all on dis­play in Be­tween a Frock and a Hard Place, co-writ­ten and di­rected by Alex Barry: the of­ten touch­ing and al­ways en­ter­tain­ing story be­hind Stephan El­liott’s glitzily queer The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which pre­miered in 1994.

It shows how that old bus in the film bear­ing its joy­ful mes­sage of change, that last­ing em­blem of the low-bud­get Aus­tralian film about three “cocks-in-frocks”, changed the course of his­tory and proudly brought a cel­e­bra­tion of gay cul­ture to the world. As nar­ra­tor Terence Stamp — still un­for­get­table as Ber­nadette, the tart-tongued trans woman in the movie — says, “If any­one could pen­e­trate the dark heart of Australia, it was the drag queens with their frocks of ar­mour and those dag­ger tongues.”

Stamp’s calm, mod­u­lated voice in­ter­rupts the flow of re­flec­tion only oc­ca­sion­ally, ca­pa­ble of as much quiet scorn for the so­cial cir­cum­stances of the past as ad­mi­ra­tion for the out­siders who were the in­spi­ra­tion for the movie.

“As the old girl hit her 20th year, a bunch of film­mak­ers came a-knock­ing, beg­ging me to spill the beans on the true ad­ven­tures of bus Priscilla,” says El­liott, one of many in­ter­vie­wees.

As al­ways, his film is built on bril­liantly sourced archival and home-movie footage, in­te­grated talk­ing heads and a thump­ing sound­track. It brings a sense of heart­felt ad­mi­ra­tion for the de­fi­ant sense of ex­ul­ta­tion of those be­hind the mak­ing of this great movie. As Stamp says about the cul­ture ripped apart by El­liott’s movie: “What were we afraid of?”

Terence Stamp with Priscilla the bus

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