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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Mon­day, Ten, 7.30pm. Sun­day and

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,

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