THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
A gripping new ABC drama explores the complicated and ambiguous terrain of human relationships
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,
DIMITRIADES PLAYS TO JOE’S WEAKNESSES AS WELL AS HIS STRENGTHS