Journey into a dystopian future that melds indigenous storytelling with the blockbuster narrative of a superhero adventure
American critic John Simon once said the hallmark of a good movie is that it stays in your mind: certain images, scenes, bits of dialogue — even a moment here, an expression there — become part of your experience just as if you had lived them (which in a sense you have). It’s the way I felt after watching the first episode of the brilliant and magical Cleverman, a genre-bending, dystopian six-part sci-fi thriller from Goalpost Pictures Australia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures for ABC TV, co-produced with Sundance TV and German distributor Red Arrow International.
It’s a startlingly original high-concept story: literate, clever and imaginative. And it should prove very popular. (As I write, it’s just been announced that the series has been picked up by the BBC.)
Its many creators display a talent for imagery that is unusually provocative, not for any gore displayed, though there’s plenty of that, but for the range and quality of ideas expressed and the visceral jolt that accompanies their unravelling. It overlaps the blockbuster narrative of superheroes — the way they deal with deep personal, social and political issues — with 60,000 years of storytelling in Australian indigenous culture to create a moving and riveting relationship drama.
“I have a huge love of superheroes and comics. It got me thinking about creating something cultural that my young son could connect to on a superhero basis,” says creator Ryan Griffen. “I wanted to bring something Aboriginal, indigenous, to that world. As the son of a light-skinned Aboriginal man and a light-skinned Aboriginal woman, it was important for me that my son had a cultural superhero that he could look up to as a young Aboriginal person … something he could connect to that was also entertaining.”
Wayne Blair, director of Australian box office smash hit The Sapphires, also produced by Goalpost Pictures, is lead director, with acclaimed director, writer, actress and performer Leah Purcell also helming episodes. Pukeko Pictures is associated with renowned Weta Workshop ( Lord of the Rings, among many others) and it worked alongside Jacob Nash from the Bangarra Dance Company in providing much of the design. And breathtaking it is too, as is a cast that includes Scottish actor Iain Glen ( Game of Thrones), Golden Globe nominee Frances O’Connor ( The Missing), Deborah Mailman ( The Sapphires), Robyn Nevin ( Top of the Lake) and veteran indigenous actor Jack Charles ( The Gods of Wheat Street).
The elegant plot, combining a mind-stretching idea with a very human story, provides a good dose of shocks. The show’s writers, Michael Miller, Jon Bell and Jane Allen, have constructed it in a way that pushes the limits of the real — presented in a cool, noirish aesthetic — to tell deeper but still plausible stories. The narrative moves swiftly and there is enough momentum for us to maintain suspension of disbelief and not question the logic too closely. The writers don’t fixate on their plot points; they simply allow us to assimilate them rapidly as the story rushes us forward, setting up questions for us to ponder as we watch. Their plot twists and turns tortuously, demanding that we master a specialised vocabulary to follow it, one of its many delights.
In the very near future, creatures from ancient mythology have suddenly emerged and must coexist with humans, and as the show opens a series of unexplained violent attacks occurs in the city, which is a kind of futuristic Sydney, tawdry and neon-bleary. (It’s the sort of retro-fitting employed so famously by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner — the future built in and around the rubble of the present.)
Known as Hairypeople for the matted covering of their bodies, they look human apart from their hirsute quality, and have extraordinary strength, speed and longevity. But they are social misfits, ostracised for their otherness and easily blamed for the violence. They share some things with the indigenous community — knowledge of land, culture and Dreaming — and speak an indigenous language, Gumbaynggirr, from Australia’s east coast. At the same time, they are unlike humans, with different DNA. The majority of Hairypeople are “shavers” (those who learn English and choose to re- move their hair to blend in with society), but some are “non-shavers” who defiantly live their lives as they always have — covered in a thick coat of hair from head to toe, and often speaking their traditional language.
They seek refuge in The Zone: a fragile, locked-off community also containing indigenous people and those of other ethnic origins, the disenfranchised and the poor. Fugitives and fighters, they’re always on the run from raids mandated by the militaristic Containment Authority, a government-funded body established to capture runaway Hairypeople.
A brilliant first scene sets the context. A group of young men violently harasses and seeks to sexually terrorise a young darkskinned woman on a bus, but pulling back her sleeve, they are terrified. “There’s a hairy on the bus,” one shouts, and she erupts and hurls them about the vehicle. It had me cheering.
One chosen being with mysterious powers — the Cleverman — has the ability to bring these worlds back together, but when Uncle Jimmy (Charles) has his heart ripped out on a beach by a beast called a Namorrodor, his nephew Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) becomes the new Cleverman. He’s a young man in denial of his culture and estranged from his family. His half-brother, the charismatic Waruu (Rob Collins), is a spiritual man with a hard edge, and he believes he is the protector of his people, the natural heir to the Cleverman powers. Waruu’s realisation that his reckless younger brother has been chosen threatens to unhinge him, while Koen, treacherous and violent, must decide to which tribe he belongs.
Cleverman takes us imaginatively into a brutal, ugly world that, for all the hairies and heavi- ly armed riot cops stomping around, feels sadly familiar. The allegories might be a little obvious but they’re handled without political posturing. However, it’s impossible not to think of the indigenous experience in this country and also the horror stories of rape, self-harm and self-immolation pouring out of Manus Island and Nauru.
The series reminds one a little of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and the way it dramatises how criminally easy it can be to marginalise people who look or act differently.
Blair demonstrates a controlled and assertive fluidity with his director of photography, Mark Wareham, moving their cameras around various dystopian interiors with the sort of assurance acquired in television from working in limited spaces. Wareham contrasts this with a wide-shot aesthetic at times, capturing vast busted landscapes and the illusion of physical depth and distance. This brings a density to the relations between the characters, a believable topography. This is something Wareham always nails in his work and it’s achieved here with not a wasted movement — each glimpse of a scene not only tells us where we are but what tensions exist between people and place.
The acting, too, has just the right stamp of authenticity, the cast with few exceptions striking no false notes and the two young leads both outstanding. And the veteran Charles — so good in The Gods of Wheat Street — steals the first episode with a luminous performance as Uncle Jimmy, a shaman with beleaguered voices in his head who reasserts the power of the Cleverman in ways no one might have expected. His face is at once as innocent as a baby’s and as astute as a professional card dealer’s, one of the few things Charles hasn’t been in his extraordinary life. It’s a face, ringed by that almost celestial mane of white hair, that through the slightest glint of an eye, the merest flicker of a smile, can melt the most frigid of audiences. And his voice is hauntingly ethereal and intimate. The man is a treasure, like so many in this wonderful cast. premieres on Thursday, 9.30pm, ABC.
Cleverman’s Iain Glen, Hunter PageLochard and Rob Collins, top; Jack Charles, left