FISH OUT OF WATER
Kate Grenville’s epic tragedy
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