A grip­ping new ABC drama explores the com­pli­cated and am­bigu­ous ter­rain of hu­man re­la­tion­ships

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Seven Types of Am­bi­gu­ity,

The classy new ABC six-part drama se­ries Seven Types of Am­bi­gu­ity from Match­box Pictures ar­rives at the ABC this week, based on the crit­i­cally ap­plauded 2004 novel by El­liot Perl­man. It fea­tures a dis­tin­guished cast, a topline writ­ing team led by Jac­quelin Perske and three highly tal­ented di­rec­tors in Glen­dyn Ivin, who gives us the style-set­ting first episode and beau­ti­fully done it is too, Ana Kokki­nos and Matthew Sav­ille.

When seven-year-old Sam Marin is taken from school, his par­ents Anna (Leeanna Wals­man) and Joe (Alex Dimitriades) are des­per­ate. How could Joe have got the pick-up time wrong and who was the man in the denim jacket with the lit­tle dog? Sev­eral des­per­ate hours later, Sam is found un­harmed, and af­ter an ini­tial investigation the po­lice arrest Si­mon Hey­wood (Xavier Sa­muel), an out-of-work school­teacher, woe­be­gone in ap­pear­ance and mutely sad. It seems, how­ever, that all he has done is take the boy to his flat for sev­eral hours and given him choco­late milk.

The po­lice investigation changes course when it is re­vealed that Si­mon is Anna’s ex-boyfriend from her univer­sity days and his sus­pected ac­com­plice, An­gela (An­drea Deme­tri­ades), is a high-class pros­ti­tute with a pro­fes­sional con­nec­tion to stock­bro­ker Joe. It seems it was An­gela who called the po­lice.

By the end of the riv­et­ing first episode we are left with four cen­tral char­ac­ters, all of whom are, in their dif­fer­ent ways, al­ready on trial, with sus­pi­cion and anx­i­ety sur­round­ing each of them.

The mys­tery of un­cov­er­ing just why Si­mon took Sam is a story-fo­cus­ing de­vice that al­lows us to delve into the psy­chol­ogy of all in­volved, their lives en­tan­gled in un­ex­pected ways. The tak­ing of the boy is like a nar­ra­tive in­ter­sec­tion; it al­lows dif­fer­ent sto­ries and iden­ti­ties to criss­cross, which they do with in­creas­ing in­ten­sity as the story un­folds.

Like the book, the se­ries will jux­ta­pose the dif­fer­ing char­ac­ters’ per­spec­tives on the in­ci­dent, sim­i­lar to the frac­tured sto­ry­telling of Sarah Treem in the long-run­ning The Af­fair. Each per­son is re­call­ing their ver­sion of events, be­gin­ning with Joe, the ti­tle of the first episode.

While this plays out, a sec­ondary plot has Joe in­volved in a ma­jor deal that is de­pen­dent on Aus­tralia ap­prov­ing re­laxed rules for US-style pri­vate hos­pi­tals. In­sider in­for­ma­tion sug­gests this un­ex­pected pri­vati­sa­tion will go ahead (which means mil­lions in mar­ket prof­its), with Joe the front­man for the shady ar­range­ment. Cen­tral to the en­ter­prise is well-con­nected busi­ness­man Don Sheere (An­drew McFar­lane), seen as the so-called “whale in the bay”, a con­duit to lure other fi­nanciers.

Perl­man’s ti­tle ref­er­ences an in­flu­en­tial 1930 study of the same name that con­sid­ered the mean­ings of po­etry, and how sense and sig­nif­i­cance are car­ried in poetic lan­guage. It was writ­ten by Bri­tish poet and critic Wil­liam Emp­son. In an ex­pla­na­tion of his ti­tle, Emp­son wrote of am­bi­gu­ity: “I pro­pose to use the word in an ex­tended sense, and shall think rel­e­vant to my sub­ject any ver­bal nu­ance, how­ever slight, which gives room for al­ter­na­tive re­ac­tions to the same piece of lan­guage.”

As in Emp­son’s work, there’s an aware­ness of con­tra­dic­tions, of ideas and emo­tions held in ten­sion in Perl­man’s writ­ing. (One re­viewer called the novel “a colossal coil of col­lid­ing and de­vi­at­ing en­tan­gle­ments”.) And this con­cise adap­ta­tion of Perl­man’s novel is con­cerned with the am­bi­gu­i­ties of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, pre­sent­ing us with con­tra­dic­tory or seem­ingly ir­rel­e­vant mean­ings as events un­fold or are dis­cussed in ret­ro­spect.

In its elided tele­vi­sion form, it’s an emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, a kind of Rashomon- like drama ex­plor­ing the com­pli­cated emo­tional ter­rain of our lives, es­pe­cially the way ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships can be open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

It is also, as ev­i­denced from what be­falls Joe and Anna in the open­ing se­quences, about fate and our pow­er­less­ness against cir­cum­stances that catch us trag­i­cally by sur­prise.

Wals­man’s Anna, in sev­eral su­perbly acted se­quences — she is fast be­com­ing one of our finest ac­tresses — is al­most co­matose as she con­sid­ers what has be­fallen her fam­ily when Sam is re­turned and the pos­si­ble im­pact of rev­e­la­tions from the past.

There is a sense that love is a kind of fate or curse, by which the uni­verse dis­penses plea­sure and dis­con­tent at ran­dom.

The first episode is a lit­tle slow — there’s a lot of the sec­ondary plot to es­tab­lish — but be­comes grip­ping as the com­plex­ity of the story as­serts it­self. Ivin and Perske — she gave us the bril­liant com­edy drama Spir­ited a cou­ple of years ago, star­ring Clau­dia Kar­van — set the drama up clev­erly and it’s go­ing to be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how they play out their adap­ta­tion of what The New York Times critic Daphne Merkin called an “enor­mous and enor­mously time-con­sum­ing 19th-cen­tury novel, in­formed by up-to-the-minute is­sues like ped­erasty and ram­pant con­sumerism, that is pre­pared, in all its sweaty aspir­ing, to take on the world whole­cloth”.

Will they man­age to achieve what she de­scribed as Perl­man’s sense of won­der in his “at­tempts not just to de­scribe the ca­cophonous ev­ery­day uni­verse we live in but to im­pose a pat­tern — a sem­blance of mean­ing — on it”?

Lick­ing our lips in an­tic­i­pa­tion, we know Hugo Weav­ing’s Alex Klima, Si­mon’s psy­chi­a­trist and ally, is yet to fea­ture, along with the sto­ries from Joe’s wife, Anna, and his ob­ses­sive best mate Mitch (An­thony Hayes), and of course Si­mon and An­gela.

Dimitriades, who was so ef­fec­tive in last year’s The Prin­ci­pal for SBS as a teacher try­ing to re­form a mul­ti­cul­tural boys high school, is again charis­matic as the street-smart in­vest­ment banker who is happy to lapse eth­i­cally when the stakes de­mand. It’s a pow­er­ful per­for­mance; Dimitriades plays to Joe’s weak­nesses as well as his strengths. Few of our TV ac­tors are as phys­i­cal as this guy.

It’s a film in­dus­try cliche that good ac­tors can di­rect them­selves, ed­i­tors can save a per­for­mance but only the di­rec­tor can give a film the gift of life. In TV the di­rec­tor is often re­garded as a glo­ri­fied traf­fic cop, a mere col­lec­tor of images.

Here, Ivin in­fuses his work with a cool, com­posed sense of style, his images often hov­er­ing on the edge of ab­strac­tion as he pho­tographs his char­ac­ters largely in close-up. It’s an­other re­fined piece of art­ful di­rec­tion, ad­ding to his work on tele­movie Bea­cons­field and se­ries Pu­berty Blues, Gal­lipoli and The Beau­ti­ful Lie. He has that gift for mak­ing shows that feel like something other than nor­mal TV. 8.30pm, ABC. Thurs­day,


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