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
‘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