Graeme Blun­dell con­sid­ers fish, oil

ABC’s lat­est adap­ta­tion of a Chris­tos Tsi­olkas novel is an ac­com­plished ex­plo­ration of class and na­tion, sport and sex

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s award-win­ning novel The Slap brought the Mel­bourne writer in­ter­na­tional suc­cess and was adapted into a com­pelling eight-part TV se­ries by Match­box Pic­tures, with some skil­ful scriptwrit­ing and di­rec­tion re­in­forc­ing his piti­less dis­sec­tion of sub­ur­ban Aus­tralian liv­ing. Now the same pro­duc­tion com­pany has brought his next novel, Bar­racuda — the story of a work­ing-class boy who at­tends a priv­i­leged pri­vate school on a swim­ming schol­ar­ship — to the screen for the ABC, and what a classy piece of work it is.

The novel was praised on pub­li­ca­tion not only for the au­thor’s think­ing about class and na­tion, sport and sex but for the way, as lit­er­ary critic Julieanne La­mond said in the Syd­ney Re­view of Books, “it fo­cuses on ... con­crete daily ethics of care and re­spect”. It’s a com­plex story and given a care­ful, con­sid­ered and ob­vi­ously re­spect­ful treat­ment by pro­duc­ers Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs, writ­ers Blake Aysh­ford and Belinda Chayko, and di­rec­tor Robert Con­nolly.

It’s Mel­bourne in 1996, a city — like the rest of the coun­try — more than a lit­tle ob­sessed by the 22-year-old Kieren Perkins when he wins the 1500m freestyle at that year’s At­lanta Olympics. Like Perkins, 16-year-old Danny Kelly (Elias An­ton) only wants to win gold, his life a prepa­ra­tion for suc­cess, with his suc­cess­ful court­ing by the exclusive boys school Black­stone Col­lege bring­ing him one step closer.

But Danny at first strug­gles to make his mark, in­tim­i­dated by the school’s grand build­ings, its walls and fancy uni­forms, the way the boys are called curtly by their sur­names. The only place he feels cer­tain of who he is in the school’s state-of-the-art pool.

The school swim team ini­tially tor­ments and ridicules him and his at­trac­tive, sen­sual mother (Vic­to­ria Har­al­abidou), his most pas­sion­ate sup­porter, who never quite fits in with the other moth­ers no mat­ter how hard she tries to be their friend. The other swim­mers — Wilco (An­drew Creer), Scooter (Rhys Mitchell), Tsit­sas (Joe Klo­cek) and the good-look­ing team leader Martin Tay­lor (Ben­jamin Kin­don) — refuse to in­te­grate him in the class­room or in the pool; their taunt­ing is re­lent­less.

But, grudg­ingly, they are forced to ac­cept him as his prow­ess in the wa­ter earns him the nick­name Bar­racuda, af­ter the fe­ro­cious, op­por­tunis­tic preda­tor that re­lies on sur­prise and short bursts of speed, and he is drawn into their wealthy so­cial world, a treach­er­ous place full of ex­pec­ta­tion and pre­tence.

What I like about the es­tab­lish­ing first episode is the way it main­tains an aura of hon­est, un­forced mys­tery: will this young man make it and what will hap­pen to the peo­ple around him along the way? Will his anger de­stroy his life? And, in the end, what is suc­cess and what is fail­ure?

In­deed, ev­ery­one in­volved with these young men seems to be floun­der­ing around, not know­ing what to do with them and their prob­lem­atic and dis­ori­ented mas­culin­ity ex­cept en­cour­age an ob­ses­sion with win­ning. Then, of course, there is the de­vel­op­ing class ten­sion.

There are so many ques­tions as the story is set in place in the rather slow-mov­ing but emo­tion­ally fas­ci­nat­ing first episode. Sev­eral themes are es­tab­lished but these peo­ple are emo­tion­ally con­stricted and can no more an­a­lyse their feel­ings than ver­balise them.

Adap­ta­tions can be tricky things. “The printed page can work as a kalei­do­scope be­cause the reader takes the shuf­fling and reshuf­fling images at his own pace, mak­ing his qui­etus when­ever he may choose; but a screen-sized kalei­do­scope shim­my­ing around re­lent­lessly for sev­eral hours would leave au­di­ences dizzy and con­fused — if it did not make them leave, pe­riod,” the critic John Si­mon wrote in re­view­ing Mi­los For­man’s adap­ta­tion of the EL Doc­torow novel Rag­time. And it’s true of TV too: we make early de­ci­sions about whether we will hang in with sto­ries that are too dizzy­ing.

While I haven’t read the book, I’m told that Tsi­olkas in­ven­tively splits his nar­ra­tive, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween first and third-per­son nar­ra­tion and plays with time mov­ing back­wards and for­wards, but Aysh­ford and Chayko, so far at least, have not gone down that sto­ry­telling path­way.

Con­nolly and his col­lab­o­ra­tors qui­etly move the first episode through small, well-paced in­ci­dents that im­press them­selves on you in­stantly: Danny’s knock­about dad’s strange fear of his boy’s tal­ent, the mo­ments of cruel racism and big­otry, Danny’s mother al­most erot­i­cally shav­ing her son’s body hair be­fore an event, the mo­ments when Danny’s eyes hold on his hand­some team cap­tain’s just a mo­ment too long.

It moves pur­pose­fully to­wards a def­i­nite con­clu­sion — the jour­ney has mean­ing and no stage of it is merely ac­ci­den­tal — en­hanced by the fluid camera skills of cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ste­fan Dus­cio and the fine score of Bry­ony Marks trac­ing the wax­ing and wan­ing of ten­sions.

The act­ing is ex­em­plary: Matt Nable is one of our un­sung and most ver­sa­tile tal­ents, es­pe­cially good as coach Torma, his Hun­gar­ian ac­cent not only con­vinc­ing but be­guil­ing when he reads Walt Whit­man to his charges. Creer, Mitchell and Klo­cek con­vince too as ster­ling com­pet­i­tive swim­mers as well as com­plex rich kids, and An­ton, mak­ing his TV de­but in the title role, win­ning the part while in Year 11, is sim­ply tremen­dous. This should be the start of a long ca­reer as a lead­ing actor. A week af­ter a new po­lit­i­cal era has set­tled around us, it’s salu­tary to look at this new doc­u­men­tary se­ries from the BBC called Planet Oil, the story of global en­ergy se­cu­rity and how we are now at its crit­i­cal junc­ture. It’s pre­sented by the ami­able but pas­sion­ate and au­thor­i­ta­tive pro­fes­sor Iain Ste­wart, a Scot­tish ge­ol­o­gist well known to TV au­di­ences for his en­ter­tain­ing ap­proach to “pop­u­lar geo­science”.

His first solo tele­vi­sion se­ries was Jour­neys from the Cen­tre of the Earth, which fo­cused on his re­search into un­cov­er­ing the ge­o­log­i­cal traces of an­cient earth­quakes, vol­canic erup­tions and tsunamis in an at­tempt to un­der­stand how these past events can help us ad­dress fu­ture nat­u­ral dis­as­ter threats.

Like physi­cist Brian Cox, the so-called rock star of TV sci­ence, he is part of a move­ment in TV doc­u­men­tary that has seen com­mand­ing, con­fi­dent sci­en­tists placed at the head of epic knowl­edge se­ries in­stead of film stars, news­read­ers or TV celebri­ties. All of them are ca­pa­ble of trans­lat­ing for­bid­dingly dense sub­jects without be­com­ing bogged down in the com­plex­i­ties, and able to fo­cus en­ter­tain­ingly on the hu­man drama of dis­cov­ery and in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

As Jean-Michel Vil­lot, who cre­ated Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Sci­ence on TV sev­eral years ago said: “The sad truth is that some­one has to be able to stop chan­nels be­ing changed once the Sword is men­tioned.”

In Planet Oil, the pre­sen­ter some fans call “that Vol­cano Bloke” takes us across the world to show us how oil and gas fields are ei­ther run­ning dry or have be­come po­lit­i­cally or en­vi­ron­men­tally toxic. And how, for all the talk of re­new­ables and nu­clear, no one is in any doubt that the hu­man race will con­tinue to rely on fos­sil fu­els for the fore­see­able fu­ture. But how long can Earth’s re­sources sus­tain life as we know it? “From the mo­ment we first drilled for oil, we opened a Pan­dora’s box that changed the world for­ever, and trans­formed the way we live our lives,” he says. “It trans­formed the way we lived our lives, spawned for­eign wars and turned a sim­ple nat­u­ral re­source into the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal weapon the world has ever known.”

And he gives us an im­mer­sion-style com­men­tary where he places him­self at the cen­tre of his pre­sen­ta­tion, of­ten with some el­e­ment of risk, and vis­its the places that gave birth to the earth’s oil riches, dis­cov­ers the peo­ple who fought over its con­trol and sup­ply, and ex­plores how our in­sa­tiable thirst for oil is chang­ing the planet on which we de­pend. It’s a jour­ney, he says, that may help “an­swer a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: How did we be­come so ad­dicted to oil in lit­tle more than one hu­man life­time?”

Planet Oil, Satur­day, BBC World News, 7.10pm. Bar­racuda, Sun­day, ABC, 8.40pm.

Elias An­ton in a scene from the ABC’s Bar­racuda

Planet Oil pre­sen­ter Iain Ste­wart in­ves­ti­gates our ad­dic­tion to fos­sil fu­els

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