JAIL­HOUSE BLUES

Feel­ings in the prison are run­ning high as Went­worth re­turns for its fifth sea­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Went­worth

Fox­tel’s award-win­ning Aus­tralian prison drama Went­worth re­turns for a fifth sea­son, again fea­tur­ing a cast of splen­didly strong fe­male char­ac­ters in­hab­ited with won­der­ful hu­man­ity by one of the best en­sem­ble casts we’ve seen on lo­cal TV. Metic­u­lously pre­pared and pro­duced with ad­mirable cin­e­matic knowhow, it’s been an enor­mous hit in­ter­na­tion­ally too, now screen­ing in 140 coun­tries, with the show be­ing lo­cally adapted in three dif­fer­ent lan­guages (pro­duc­tions in Ger­many, The Nether­lands and Bel­gium) and more in de­vel­op­ment.

When it landed in Bri­tain, crit­ics found it more en­ter­tain­ing than US drama Orange is the New Black, Jenji Ko­han’s long-run­ning and crit­i­cally ap­plauded look at the re­al­ity of women’s pris­ons in the US — the racial di­ver­sity, the se­ri­ous so­cioe­co­nomic dis­ad­van­tage of most in­mates, and the in­dif­fer­ence and cru­elty dished out by prison staff.

The Aus­tralian show none­the­less left them a lit­tle be­mused, even if there was a sim­i­lar cheeky kind of pruri­ence in its pre­sen­ta­tion and the same dis­turb­ing tan­gle of plots within plots. And there’s a not dis­sim­i­lar pre­vail­ing mood of moral am­bi­gu­ity and cyn­i­cism as to the mo­tives and ef­fi­cacy of the forces of law and or­der.

“Even so, it re­mains a rare ex­am­ple of a dra­matic world in which les­bian­ism is not only nor­mal, but the norm,” wrote The Tele­graph’s Ger­ard O’Dono­van. “It also shows a world in which women hold vir­tu­ally all the power, al­beit to no ob­vi­ously ed­i­fy­ing ends.” But The In­de­pen­dent’s Rachel Roberts caught the so­cial sub­text of the se­ries, the way it raises “the ques­tion of why we con­tinue to lock up some of the most vul­ner­a­ble and da­m­aged women in so­ci­ety for rel­a­tively petty of­fences”. It’s a ques­tion, she sug­gested, that has yet to be an­swered when so many women both in Bri­tain and in Aus­tralia serve time for non-vi­o­lent of­fences, them­selves of­ten the vic­tims of se­ri­ous crimes such as rape, sex­ual abuse or do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

And Went­worth con­tin­ues to deal with the path­ways, ei­ther cho­sen or im­posed, that put women in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, and what re­ally hap­pens to them. In deal­ing with the sto­ries of these women and those who work to keep them con­fined, the show also ad­dresses the ways we are all caught up in the in­sti­tu­tional power strug­gles that de­ter­mine the fluc­tu­a­tions of our lives.

If you have never seen it — and it’s easy to pick up, with the back­sto­ries of the char­ac­ters care­fully reprised in­side the new story arcs — it cham­pi­ons those who chal­lenge the so­cial or­der, its sto­ry­lines knot­ting into one an­other and split­ting apart, some­times re­solved and some­times not, its hu­mour dark and sober­ing.

The shock­ing end­ing of the pre­vi­ous sea­son is clev­erly re-pre­sented in a beau­ti­fully edited se­quence be­fore the story re­sumes in the days fol­low­ing Bea Smith’s (Danielle Cor­mack) tragic demise at the hands of former prison gov­er­nor Joan Fer­gu­son (Pamela Rabe). Be was vi­o­lently stabbed to death in the prison’s no­man’s land. The new sea­son picks up with the pris­on­ers lay­ing flow­ers on her grave. She’s buried next to her daugh­ter Deb­bie, mur­dered in an ear­lier episode, her grave bear­ing the in­scrip­tion: “They loved each other to the moon and back.” It’s go­ing to take a while to for­get Bea.

Emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal and pro­fes­sional reper­cus­sions still hit the shocked in­mates and staff of the cor­rec­tional cen­tre. Prison gov­er­nor Vera Ben­nett (Kate Atkin­son) is un­der pres­sure from Cor­rec­tive Ser­vices and, with Will Jack­son (Rob­bie Ma­ga­siva) on sus­pen­sion, she is re­ly­ing more on her deputy Jake Ste­wart (Bernard Curry), with no inkling the de­vi­ous Ste­wart is now seem­ingly un­der Fer­gu­son’s con­trol.

There’s an ex­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the “hot shot” Al­lie No­vak (Kate Jenk­in­son) re­ceived in the show­ers at the end of the last sea­son, hos­pi­tal­is­ing her. The per­pe­tra­tor ap­par­ently was Fer­gu­son, even though the records show she was locked in a med­i­cal hold- ing cell in soli­tary at the time. And any footage was con­ve­niently wiped from the sur­veil­lance sys­tems.

So much awe sur­rounds Fer­gu­son that she seems to pos­sess su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers, a Han­ni­bal Lecter-like su­per­hu­man cun­ning and lack of em­pa­thy, though Rabe, a per­former of unerring grace and au­then­tic­ity, is such an ac­com­plished ac­tress she avoids the melo­drama, turn­ing Fer­gu­son into one of the most be­liev­able vil­lains we’ve seen on the lo­cal screen.

As she seeks vengeance and pos­si­bly re­demp­tion at the same time — it’s hard to know at this point — new top dog Kaz (Tammy Mac­in­tosh) has a chal­lenge to re­store or­der among the trau­ma­tised in­mates, es­pe­cially as Fer­gu­son is re­leased back into gen­eral con­fine­ment, her lawyer cit­ing hu­man rights abuses, the former gov­er­nor not deemed dan­ger­ous un­til a court rules oth­er­wise. Kaz calls a mora­to­rium on vi­o­lence be­tween the women; Fer­gu­son, mean­while, is to be treated as in­vis­i­ble, no one en­gag­ing with her.

If that’s not enough in the sto­ry­line de­part­ment, former top dog Franky (Ni­cole Da Silva), hav­ing gone straight and now liv­ing in the out­side world with her lover, prison psy­chol­o­gist Bridget West­fall (Libby Tan­ner), in con­tra­ven­tion of her pa­role obli­ga­tions, is be­ing stalked by the vi­o­lent Michael Pen­nisi (Felix Wil­liamson). In what she now sees as a pre­vi­ous life, Franky scarred him in an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing a fry­ing pan full of scald­ing fat.

It’s re­ally been Bea Smith’s jour­ney since the se­ries started: the former hair­dresser who once ran a small but prof­itable sa­lon, and, pow­er­less in an abu­sive mar­riage, found her­self forced into a des­per­ate ac­tion that landed her in Went­worth. In prison she was placed in a sit­u­a­tion where some sort of vi­o­lence or crim­i­nal­ity be­came a moral ne­ces­sity, shep­herd­ing a group of other women who ap­pealed to her for jus­tice de­nied to them be­cause of so­cial prej­u­dice, gov­ern­ment in­flex­i­bil­ity or the cor­rup­tion of those in power.

There was some­thing al­most mythic about Cor­mack’s Bea, that aura of steel-tem­pered tough­ness that was sim­ply a kind of psy­chic ar­mour to al­low her to sur­vive. She was a won­der­ful creation who crossed the bound­aries of civil­i­sa­tion and en­tered a realm of dis­or­der and law­less­ness in which vi­o­lence was in­evitable.

But now the show’s main story arc seems to be the jour­ney of Rabe’s su­perbly re­alised Fer­gu­son, a vil­lain as the ul­ti­mate out­sider, her face lit like a tragic mask, mag­i­cally aloof but full of con­tra­dic­tions — and it turns out some stun­ning street moves when it comes to a phys­i­cal scrap. She is now to fully oc­cupy our minds if her ac­tions in the first episode are any in­di­ca­tion.

But watch for the Franky story to de­velop too — maybe these two forces of fe­male na­ture will clash again. Atkin­son’s Ben­nett is fas­ci­nat­ing too, the gov­er­nor seem­ingly vic­timised by the sys­tem, bat­tling for con­trol, fight­ing off the rigours of over­work and ner­vous strain, and hold­ing too many se­crets in her busy brain. It’s Atkin­son’s voice that grabs you in ev­ery scene — the way it so tellingly con­veys both au­thor­ity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. She’s sur­rounded by ac­tresses of greater pres­ence but she makes hers felt in ev­ery scene.

The show is again su­perbly di­rected, this time with Mat King at the helm and he has main­tained the feel of Kevin Car­lin’s orig­i­nal ap­proach. With di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Kathy Cham­bers, he main­tains the highly cin­e­matic look of the ear­lier sea­sons, even push­ing a lit­tle fur­ther with the use of tele­photo-style lenses to com­press and flat­ten the space be­tween ob­jects; they of­ten ap­pear pressed to­gether around the char­ac­ters, cre­at­ing a sense of claus­tro­pho­bia and con­ges­tion.

You can al­most smell the fear and de­spair. And the ex­cite­ment too. Cham­bers doesn’t merely pho­to­graph the ac­tion; her choice of lenses and an­gles com­ments on it. The shal­low depth of field also al­lows her to fo­cus on a nar­row plane of ac­tion, es­pe­cially in the scenes in­volv­ing Fer­gu­son, blur­ring the rest of the image, guid­ing our at­ten­tion.

She gives us a sense of re­al­ity that is elu­sive, am­bigu­ous and some­times un­gras­pable, just as it is for the char­ac­ters. The sense of claus­tro­pho­bia is al­most pal­pa­ble — as if we were some­how in the scene, too; the point of view is that of an in­sider, the vis­ual clues and con­nec­tions, not al­ways in­stantly clear, adding to the drama.

And what drama is packed into the first 50 min­utes of the new sea­son. Show­case.

YOU CAN AL­MOST SMELL THE FEAR AND DE­SPAIR. AND THE EX­CITE­MENT TOO

re­turns on April 4, 8.30pm,

Went­worth’s main cast and, be­low, Pamela Rabe as Joan Fer­gu­son

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