FIRST WATCH GRAEME BLUNDELL
This is by no means the first pass at the Chamberlain story, but it is the first to parse the case from various angles and reveal the woman at its centre
The two-part miniseries Lindy Chamberlain: The True Story is a joint production between awardwinning production company Easy Tiger, headed by the redoubtable Ian Collie who co-produces with Rob Gibson, and Empress Road’s Francine Finnane and Mark Joffe, who wrote and directed respectively. It’s a reflective, critical look at the investigation of Azaria Chamberlain’s death and her mother’s prosecution, conviction, imprisonment for murder and eventual exoneration.
This version of the story, dramatised with the involvement of Lindy and her family, who provide access to their personal archives including Lindy and husband Michael’s wedding day, and even audio of baby Azaria’s voice, reveals once more that justice was eventually attained for Lindy, but somehow for years the result has rung somewhat hollow. (She says she still is subject to what she calls “dingo howls” while walking down the street.) These experienced collaborators have gathered their own evidence from judges, forensic experts, lawyers and high-profile journalists who covered the case.
But the most telling is from the eyewitnesses present on the night Azaria disappeared who have been largely ignored for decades, and family friends who have not been heard until now.
And what emerges as much as anything is a wrenching narrative about surviving trauma, how to move through it, if not necessarily beyond it. As Lindy says early in the first episode: “Grief is the price we pay for love and if you have a lot of love you have a lot of grief but your life is richer for those we loved and lost.”
It’s an interesting local version of what some commentators call “highbrow true crime”, (think The Case Against Adnan Syed, The Jinx and O.J.: Made in America), which, while it deals in the same melodramatic storytelling devices as traditional TV true crime, is seeking to answer more profound questions. And there is little doubt this is TV as advocacy and in some sense intervention. Its aim — to answer all the rumours and gossip about the terrible events of that night in 1980 and to let Lindy answer the questions she says she has never been asked, especially what has she learned about herself.
She said recently on Ten’s The Project, promoting the doco series, that talking about what had happened was hardly her favourite thing to do. “I think if I was asked a different line of questions you would get totally different answers and you would go ‘Wow, I never knew that’,” she said.
She suggested she was undergoing the ordeal again not because of any anniversary but simply because she was asked by the producers. “But in telling my story again it’s a little different this time. It’s not so much forensics and what happened and that sort of thing,” she said. “It’s more the personal stories that have been involved, the behind-the-scenes.”
Most of us know something of what happened 40 years ago. Lindy was jailed for life in 1982 for Azaria’s murder on August 17, 1980 during a family camping trip and spent 3½ years in prison, despite arguing vehemently that a dingo had taken her baby. That suggestion was contemptuously ridiculed by the prosecution and inflamed prejudice against her.
As the new documentary emphasises, she was a woman in a short dress who didn’t present herself like a pastor’s wife and talked back to police when she should have been crumpled with grief. (She says in the doco she had been taught by her Christian father: “Out of the shadows comes the sunshine — get it, face it, deal with it, move on, get past it. And particularly in this situation I found myself in, that was gold.”)
As former broadcaster Michael Carlton, then a hard-nosed journo, says: “I think she had to carry a special burden because she was a woman.”
Lindy herself puts it like this: “If you smile and act normal, you’re very hard hearted; and if you cry, you’re acting.”
Michael Chamberlain, a pious, curiously blank man to observe, was sentenced to 18 months’ jail as an accessory, suspended in the interests of their remaining children, Aidan and Regan. When she went to jail, Lindy was seven months’ pregnant with Khalia, her fourth child. According to journalist Jim Brown, one of the few sympathetic at the time, her conviction was greeted with cheering and fireworks in the dark streets of Darwin, a bacchanalian edge to the trial. “It was like going back to the Middle Ages,” he says.
When Azaria’s matinee jacket was discovered (the prosecution had maintained it was a fiction) at the base of Ayers Rock on February 2, 1986, the controversy was reignited. Five days later, Lindy was released on remission and officially exonerated in 1988. Azaria’s death certificate was amended in 2012 after a fourth coronial inquest found she did indeed die as a result of being taken by a dingo.
Author John Bryson, one of many interview subjects here, followed the brightly illuminated saga and in 1985 wrote Evil Angels, a masterly journalistic account of the tragedy, which was adapted into a controversial 1988 film by Fred Schepisi starring Meryl Streep as Lindy and Sam Neill as Michael. (Neill, who narrates this series, is also an executive producer.)
A Channel 10 in-house doco-drama, Kevin Hitchcock’s A Question of Evidence, was aired in 1984, and in 2002 an opera called Lindy written by composer Moya Henderson was staged. These productions, like the movie version, only fuelled speculation about what really happened.
And there was a fine TV series called Through My Eyes which aired in 2004 from writers and producers Tony Cavanaugh and Simone North, the entire script composed of dialogue from new interviews conducted by the pair, along with court documents, and the co-operation of Lindy herself, whose book of the same title had been released in 1990.
This new series, beautifully directed by Joffe and written with empathy and great skill by Finnane, is a confronting, immersive story about the collision between fate and destiny — how a life can be defined in a split second. Even with Lindy’s obvious full involvement, it holds little back in convincing us the Chamberlains did not help project a sense of innocence with their behaviour. “It was clear that they had no idea of what was against them because of their own natural behaviour,” says Schepsisi. “They had no concept of just being themselves, how much that fuelled all the mania that was running across the country.”
Their unquestioning Adventist faith is a touch alienating, though the faith of those close to them is genuinely touching, but not as horrifying as the actions of a humiliated, aggressive police force, ambitious, ruthless politicians, pitiable science, and an almost wicked determination by a legal system to ignore any evidence that suggested the Chamberlains were innocent.
But perhaps above all this new series again confronts us with the truth of lives up-ended by violence and grief. There is also that sense of identification, the “what would I do?” if threatened with the same set of circumstances.
What the producers do here in their prestige true crime way is parse the case of Lindy from multiple angles, some of which are new to longtime voyeurs of the events surrounding her and her family, in the attempt to understand them on the level of individual choices and cultural forces.
This miniseries is obviously expensive and a great deal of care has been taken with the interviews, most of which tastefully take place in a studio with arc lights aesthetically placed in the framing, the subjects often sitting at the start opposite photographic shots of the way they were 40 years ago. While not always flattering, in some cases it’s a device that adds a nice aesthetic touch to the coverage as well as providing some historical context.
Is the Chamberlain case worth revisiting? I think so, and it’s an imposing, thoughtful and compassionate piece of filmmaking in this new era of high-end true crime. And a salutary reminder of the way the shock of murder and illegality creates a schism between order and chaos. “We gorge on facts and innuendo but are then left with the hangover of trauma, the aftermath of a system that too often fails people,” says Sarah Weinman in her introduction to Unspeakable Acts, her recent collection of true crime writing. “We crave a narrative that restores righteousness but are left with scraps of barely connected meaning.”
Well, not this time. This series cleans up much of the messiness and strange ambiguities surrounding Lindy’s story, even if it remains profoundly unsettling.
‘It’s more the personal stories that have been involved, the behind-the-scenes’ Lindy Chamberlain
Lindy Chamberlain: The True Story,