The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent: the Tas­ma­nian gothic se­ries ex­plained

There’s drama and ten­sion as strange lights ap­pear and two girls van­ish from a lonely part of Tas­ma­nia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

‘Some­times it seemed to me that the fusty odour of fear, the stench of the prison ships, was still in Ho­bart; and a tragic, heavy air, an air of un­be­liev­able sor­row, even in sun­shine, hung over the ru­ined sand­stone pen­i­ten­tiary and the dark blue bay at Port Arthur, south of Ho­bart, where the tourists went,” wrote Aus­tralian nov­el­ist Christo­pher Koch in 1985.

And it’s that same qual­ity that hangs so at­mo­spher­i­cally over The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent — shot en­tirely on the is­land — that sense of the way the past in­trudes into the present in such a dis­turb­ing way. It’s as if, Koch also sug­gested, in the lonely places of Tas­ma­nia, there’s a sense that it doesn’t re­ally be­long to those who find them­selves there un­able to es­cape; nor they to it.

These are the peo­ple of Ket­ter­ing, in Fox­tel’s to­tally mes­meris­ing orig­i­nal drama cre­ated by Tas­ma­nian writer Vic­to­ria Mad­den ( Trial and Ret­ri­bu­tion, The Bill), and pro­duc­ers Vin­cent Shee­han ( An­i­mal King­dom) and the in­dus­tri­ous and ac­com­plished An­drew Walker ( A Moody Christ­mas), who has been in­volved in hun­dreds of hours of Aus­tralian TV.

The se­ries was orig­i­nally funded by Screen Tas­ma­nia, a pre­lim­i­nary out­line catch­ing the at­ten­tion of Fox­tel’s Penny Win, who as head of drama has worked on the com­mis­sion­ing of the sub­stan­tial slate of re­cent Fox­tel se­ries such as Went­worth, Devil’s Play­ground, Dead­line Galli

poli and the es­pi­onage thriller Se­cret City. Di­rec­tion is in the hands of Rowan Woods ( The Boys), who di­rects the first two episodes, and Tony Krawitz ( Jew­boy), each with sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture­film ex­pe­ri­ence.

The mys­tery drama was born from a dis­cus­sion be­tween Mad­den and Shee­han, when they first met at the Breath of Fresh Air Film Fes­ti­val in Launce­s­ton in 2011, of a sim­ple but per­plex­ing ques­tion: where do peo­ple go when they seem­ingly just van­ish from the planet? If you go to the Na­tional Miss­ing Per­sons Co-or­di­na­tion Cen­tre on­line you will find it es­ti­mates that 35,000 peo­ple are re­ported miss­ing each year in Australia, one per­son ev­ery 15 min­utes. And while most are lo­cated shortly af­ter, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber — more than 1600 — who are miss­ing long term sim­ply dis­ap­pear, leav­ing the lives of their loved ones in limbo.

This is what hap­pens in Ket­ter­ing, a dis­trict of rugged un­charted wilder­ness, its peo­ple largely sup­ported by the lo­cal tim­ber mill, but also a des­ti­na­tion for hun­dreds of rad­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists fight­ing to save the en­dan­gered old-growth forests from the log­gers.

As the se­ries opens, two young girls are cy­cling through the for­est, the younger one (Mi­randa Ben­nett) ag­i­tated. “I want to go home, Anna,” she yells. “There’s no go­ing home, Gil­lian,” the older girl (Mad­di­son Brown) replies. Strange lights ap­pear in the skies and the trees around them and Gil­lian dis­mounts and runs to­wards them. Eight hours later, Anna is found alone, ter­ri­fied and cov­ered in blood.

We cut abruptly to 15 years later and Anna (El­iz­a­beth De­bicki), now work­ing as a haema­tol­o­gist in a North Lon­don hos­pi­tal, is found by a po­lice­man bleed­ing and di­shev­elled. She’s had some sort of episode, lost seven hours and is suf­fer­ing se­vere nose­bleeds. Af­ter treat­ment at the hos­pi­tal, she finds her­self in­ex­pli­ca­bly on a road in Ket­ter­ing with a pass­port, a ticket and no lug­gage. Signs on the road­side sug­gest: “Keep warm this winter — burn a Gree­nie.” She be­gins a dis­tress­ing jour­ney back into a world of dis­placed char­ac­ters and du­plic­ity, where she needs to con­front the dan­gers of delv­ing into the past, in­clud­ing her own, in a quest for truth.

But Mad­den, who wrote the fea­ture-length first episode, plays genre tricks with re­al­ity and from the start we re­ally don’t know just what is hap­pen­ing — there are jump cuts in time, hal­lu­ci­na­tory flashes of empty rooms, a bare wooden chair and a half-naked boy. We know Anna suf­fers seizures and black­outs, some­times in a kind of sleep­walk­ing state per­form­ing a strange tap dance, and is on an an­tipsy­chotic drug used to treat bipo­lar dis­or­der.

Is she un­hinged men­tally and imag­in­ing what seems to be hap­pen­ing to her? Or is she in fact ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some­thing oth­er­worldly that is out of her con­trol? Did she mur­der her best friend as many in the town still think? Or was it a case of alien ab­duc­tion, as oth­ers adamantly be­lieve? Then an­other girl mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­pears af­ter Anna’s re­turn: a coltish party girl called Chloe, who longs to travel the world and record it with her cam­era, but she too has seen the lights.

As the pro­duc­ers say in their pro­duc­tion notes, re­gard­less of the sci­ence-fic­tion con­ceit their nar­ra­tive re­mains firmly fo­cused on the very hu­man story of a cen­tral fe­male char­ac­ter and her quest to dis­cover the truth about her­self and her child­hood home.

Her night­mar­ish de­scent into hell is a vari­a­tion on the theme of the alien­ated, in­se­cure in­hab­i­tant of a patho­log­i­cal world who must over­come some form of am­ne­sia to re­cover time and re­con­sti­tute their in­no­cence. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing piece of drama; an in­tense mys­tery story that is about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and dis­cov­ery of se­crets, which usu­ally in this genre leads to some ben­e­fit to the char­ac­ter with whom the viewer iden­ti­fies.

Noth­ing much hap­pens in the first episode, though it is grip­ping and re­fuses to let the at­ten­tion wan­der. With its el­e­ments of the supernatural, it’s hard to imag­ine there might be a ra­tio­nal and de­sir­able solution, usu­ally the case with genre mys­ter­ies.

The TV crime mys­tery — think: The Killing and Broad­church — as a form usu­ally in­volves the iso­la­tion of clues, the mak­ing of de­duc­tions from those clues, and the at­tempt to place them in some ra­tio­nal or­der in a scheme of cause and ef­fect, but this se­ries de­fies these for­mu­laic el­e­ments from the start. Its orig­i­nal­ity is strik­ing. Maybe in other hands there may have been a de­mand for greater dra­matic twists and more overt ap­peals to sex and vi­o­lence but the creators have main­tained a steady hand, their nar­ra­tive vi­sion in­tact.

Rowan Woods’s di­rec­tion cre­ates a re­lent­less mo­men­tum, plung­ing us into a kind of for­lorn dream­scape. Fringe town­ships around Ket­ter­ing are places of fail­ure, sus­pi­cion and ne­glect. Car parks hum in their par­tic­u­lar flu­o­res­cent si­lences, all an­gles and dark solids. Rib­bons of high­way un­ravel through the an­cient forests, or along­side the primeval capes of rock, of­ten crammed with mas­sive, threat­en­ing log-bear­ing trucks.

The di­rec­tion is clas­sic Hol­ly­wood in style — wide shots pre­dom­i­nate, the char­ac­ters caught against the in­tim­i­dat­ing phys­i­cal back­ground, help­less against the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, those pit­ted capes of rock and the wild south­ern storms and light­ning strikes.

As the char­ac­ters know, this is not a land­scape to be taken for granted. The truth of the coun­try re­asserts it­self af­ter their pres­ence. They en­ter the com­po­si­tions and then exit the scene, the land­scape seem­ing to glower and rum­ble in re­sponse to them. There is some lovely ar­chi­tec­tural fram­ing of scenes, again mak­ing us aware of the con­crete­ness of place, char­ac­ters de­fined in mo­ments by ceil­ings, win­dows, walls and door spa­ces, a sense of con­stric­tion and com­pres­sion as the nat­u­ral world out­side them con­tracts and ex­pands vi­o­lently, of­ten swarm­ing with moths.

De­bicki is su­perb in a part that is chal­leng­ing and not all that em­pa­thetic. She’s hard to like; com­pet­i­tive and re­sent­ful at ever ap­pear­ing vul­ner­a­ble, and, as an ac­tor, so tall she dom­i­nates scenes even at her most de­pen­dent. Seem­ingly so plain at times, the light of­ten finds her at her most emo­tion­ally sus­cep­ti­ble and she ra­di­ates an ethe­real beauty and in­tel­li­gence. Ali­son Whyte is won­der­fully stoic as sin­gle mum Deb Russell, who cashes in on the town’s in­fa­mous UFO phe­nom­e­non, sell­ing snow dome sou­venirs in her road­house. And Matthew Le Nevez is darkly im­pres­sive as the bent cop not long re­turned from the main­land where he’s worked for the past 10 years in the drug squad.

It is im­pos­si­ble to guess where The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent is go­ing, but the story of this strange place won’t leave your head un­til you find out.

The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent, Mon­day, 8.30pm, Showcase.

El­iz­a­beth De­bicki, top, and Matthew Le Nevez, left, in The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent

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