UN­LIKELY HE­ROES

Rake and Went­worth re­turn to our TV sets to en­thral and ap­pal in equal mea­sure as they deal in their way with as­pects of the law

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Went­worth, Rake

What a de­light it is to wel­come back Richard Roxburgh’s Rake to our screens as he takes us on an­other hys­ter­i­cal jour­ney with his won­der­fully ragged ensem­ble of cronies, en­e­mies and con­quests. An ex­pan­sive, off­beat char­ac­ter study — a kind of com­edy of dis­so­lute man­ners — Rake is also a po­lit­i­cal por­trait that ex­am­ines why we feel our le­gal in­sti­tu­tions so of­ten fail us.

As its ti­tle sug­gests, the se­ries is also a sex farce, res­o­nant with sex­ual de­li­cious­ness and one of the most acer­bically in­tel­li­gent dra­mas we’ve pro­duced.

If you have man­aged to re­sist his charms since he first ap­peared four years and three sea­sons ago, Roxburgh’s Cleaver Greene is the Syd­ney lawyer ev­ery­one in jail would love to have but is never able to find. He’s too busy act­ing for those clients still free whose cases ap­pear ut­terly hope­less, of­ten to the as­ton­ish­ment, dis­dain and some­times pal­pa­ble fear of the bench.

Greene is an al­lur­ing, ar­ro­gant, clever and emo­tion­ally com­plex pro­tag­o­nist who, like the rakes of Restora­tion com­edy, is a wom­an­is­ing, im­moral man who cuck­olds hus­bands, jug­gles sev­eral lovers and car­ries out de­cep­tive plans in the in­ter­est of adding to his list of sex­ual con­quests. But like many of those dap­per, dis­rep­utable he­roes, what he does is less im­por­tant than what he rep­re­sents — in his case a kind of lar­rikin in­de­pen­dence from so­cial con­ven­tions.

He uses wit like Con­greve, which in the 17th cen­tury was a sharp weapon to be used for the amuse­ment of those in­tel­li­gent enough to fol­low the ex­change. For Greene it’s the rapier with which he can de­mand sat­is­fac­tion for in­sults real or imag­ined. Of­ten his wit is so sav­age, and de­liv­ered in such a lat­eral way, it seems to leave him as dumb­founded as the per­son re­ceiv­ing his acer­bic barbs.

As the show de­vel­oped sea­son by sea­son it was also easy to see Greene in a long line of hard-boiled he­roes — though he is more the cowardly ver­sion of the knight er­rant, soft­boiled and wishy-washy when it comes to the hard stuff — wan­der­ing the am­bigu­ous ter­rain be­tween in­sti­tu­tion­alised law en­force­ment and true jus­tice.

Andrew Knight’s ma­li­ciously witty script for the first episode again presents Syd­ney so­ci­ety as dis­or­derly and cor­rupt, its law and po­lice ma­chin­ery at best in­ad­e­quate and at worst un­just. So Greene, op­er­at­ing rather hap­haz­ardly it must be said, is al­ways in the rather para­dox­i­cal po­si­tion of act­ing out­side the law, sup­pos­edly to up­hold it more fully by bring­ing a just ret­ri­bu­tion to those crooks who so­ci­ety is un­able to ex­pose and pun­ish. Many of them pil­lars, my dear, of the es­tab­lish­ment.

He re­turns to us in spec­tac­u­lar style un­der Peter Dun­can’s stylish di­rec­tion, af­ter a lovely nou­velle vague-style mon­tage in black and white of Greene’s back­sto­ries: the trysts, be­tray­als, failed re­la­tion­ships and slap­stick vi­o­lence he so of­ten en­coun­ters. Last seen dan­gling from a bal­loon drift­ing across Syd­ney, Greene de­scends to earth through the plate-glass win­dow of a posh har­bour­side town­house, land­ing straight into the clutches of a one-time men­tor and now pow­er­ful crim­i­nal on the run, Edgar Thomp­son (played by John Wa­ters with won­der­ful rel­ish and satanic in­sou­ciance.)

Once Aus­tralia’s most wanted crim­i­nal and a close as­so­ciate of Greene’s, Thomp­son es­caped from jail 19 years ago hav­ing greased thou­sands of palms, still con­nected in ar­cane ways to ev­ery­one who mat­ters in Syd­ney. He’s a man good at hurt­ing peo­ple, pos­sessed of a quick­sil­ver gift of the gab and fond of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with po­etic whimsy, ap­pro­pri­at­ing snatches of Yeats and Dy­lan Thomas.

His re­turn has not only Greene — swear­ing off women, wine and “the march­ing pow­der” — but many peo­ple in high places feel­ing ner­vous, in­clud­ing for­mer pre­mier and now right-wing shock jock Cal McGre­gor (Damien Garvey, also savour­ing the role). Thomp­son has emo­tional do­min­ion over a cer­tain highly placed po­lice­woman, so when Greene’s pro­tec­tion of­fi­cer is mur­dered in a Dar­linghurst ho­tel toi­let, he goes into hid­ing.

Roxburgh again de­liv­ers the works in an­other piece of bravura act­ing, leap­ing on Knight’s won­der­fully pre­pos­ter­ous script like a tiger, a fan­tas­tic, full-vol­umed dis­play. He’s coy, he’s vain, he has tantrums and, like a des­per­ate sup­pli­cant, whis­pers for re­as­sur­ance and for­give­ness from his women. And at times this rake needs to be wooed.

Lau­rence Olivier once said that “in film there is no per­for­mance; you just shoot a lot of re­hearsals and pick the best”. But watch­ing Roxburgh is like watch­ing an ac­tor in a play, the tran­si­tions in char­ac­ter seam­less and awe­some in their in­ten­sity. Is he the best ac­tor we have?

Cer­tainly it’s im­pos­si­ble to think of any­one else play­ing Greene. His per­for­mance never seems chopped up into long shots and close-ups but some­how presents it­self as a flow­ing, con­sec­u­tive whole. His ab­sorp­tion in the hows, ifs and whys of his craft is peer­less, so much so he gives the im­pres­sion he can get away with any­thing — cer­tainly he makes choices that would daunt a lesser ac­tor in this role.

He rel­ishes the dif­fi­cult, the off­beat and the bizarre, grunt­ing, whis­per­ing, de­liv­er­ing long speeches on one breath, or break­ing them up into off stac­cato rhythms. Few ac­tors so dar­ingly de­liver such glee­ful in­sights into char­ac­ter. He’s coy, vain, pompous, con­niv­ing, se­duc­tive and has tantrums; he ap­peals for sym­pa­thy, re­sorts to shrill wail­ings savour­ing of self-in­dul­gence. And is very, very funny. Those fas­ci­nated with the fail­ings of the law and the ter­ri­ble mys­ter­ies of in­car­cer­a­tion will be also de­lighted at this week’s re­turn of the highly suc­cess­ful Fox­tel orig­i­nal drama Went­worth. It started life as a reimagining of that gor­geously trashy late 1970s se­rial Pris­oner, a soap opera set in Went­worth De­ten­tion Centre, a fic­tional women’s prison. The show had its roots in the sim­i­lar Bri­tish drama se­ries Within These Walls, but this local se­rial was al­to­gether much tougher, with the women deal­ing with rape, mur­der, drugs and in­evitably re­cidi­vism.

But Went­worth moved off in far more cin­e­matic ways un­der Kevin Car­lin’s as­sured di­rec­tion. It be­came a noirish se­ries car­ry­ing a weight of preda­tori­ness and dread and, as in the best crime fic­tion, it fea­tures, like Rake, a dis­tinct ca­pac­ity for sub­tle so­cial com­men­tary. It’s an in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of the way in re­cent times crime fic­tion has shown it­self in­creas­ingly open to women and mi­nor­ity groups, and Went­worth, like Or­ange is the New Black, fea­tures the kind of fe­male cast TV rarely cel­e­brates.

This is also in­no­va­tive TV on many lev­els, a prison drama that con­tains many hard-boiled mys­ter­ies within its ma­jor sto­ry­telling arc, some of which in­ten­sify in the first episode of the new sea­son. It has been four months since the cat­a­strophic fire at the prison that saw the fall of gov­er­nor Joan Fer­gu­son (Pamela Rabe), and Bea Smith (Danielle Cor­mack) and the other in­mates have been housed off­site while they waited for con­struc­tion to be com­pleted.

Now they’re back, ar­riv­ing in prison buses in an eerie and at­mo­spheric open­ing se­quence that sees an in­tro­spec­tive Bea, fac­ing 40 years’ in­car­cer­a­tion, hud­dled in her seat mes­merised as a ceme­tery ap­pears to be re­flected in the bus’s win­dows. Vera (Kate Atkin­son) is now the gov­er­nor, and Bea soon finds her­self bat­tling new en­e­mies and Fer­gu­son is on a de­monic mis­sion to ex­on­er­ate her­self.

A kind of moral­ity play about evil, damna­tion and free will, it’s riv­et­ing sto­ry­telling pre­sent­ing us with the no­tion that moral­ity is never static and it’s al­ways a per­sonal choice. At its centre is Cor­mack’s Bea Smith, around whom re­volves the nar­ra­tive pat­tern of a pro­tag­o­nist placed in a sit­u­a­tion where some sort of vi­o­lence or crim­i­nal­ity be­comes a moral ne­ces­sity, an idea that has been around since the epics of Homer. Usu­ally they are men, splen­did he­roes who face the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge of life and death and emerge tri­umphant.

But here it’s a wo­man who is the hero, and splen­did she is too, spiky and com­plex, her jail a kind of fron­tier so­ci­ety in which vi­o­lence is part of the or­di­nary course of life and she can use it for just and valu­able pur­poses as its lead­ing citizen. And this hero is up against it ev­ery mo­ment. Just like Cleaver Greene. Tues­day, 8.30pm, SoHo. starts May 19, 8.30pm, ABC.

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Greene in Rake, above; Danielle Cor­mack as Bea Smith (sec­ond from right) in Went­worth, left

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