Cloudstreet

By David Knox on May 17, 2011 / Filed Under Pay TV, Reviews 25

So often the Australian film and television industry talks about the need to keep “Australian voices” and “Australian stories” on the screen.

It’s integral to our identity, our children and our social history. It reflects who we are as a nation.

They must have been talking about Cloudstreet.

It has taken the Subscription TV industry to bring to life Tim Winton’s modern classic, first published in 1991. And what wonders it has delivered.

This three-part miniseries is quite simply the drama of the year.

Showtime’s most ambitious project is closer to film than television. There are visuals, concepts and performances that surpass the usual small screen dramas which stick to pedestrian storytelling and talking heads. Cloudstreet is bursting with character, imagination and offers a cornucopia for the eye.

Set in the 1940s and 1950s in Perth, the story is split between two familes. Lester Lamb (Geoff Morrell) and Oriel Lamb (Kerry Fox) are penniless, salt of the earth parents whose lives are turned upside down when their son Fish (Tom Russell) nearly drowns in a fishing net. The incident leaves him permanently brain damaged and a handful for the family for the rest of their lives.

Complusive gambler Sam Pickles (Steve Curry) also has an accident, losing several fingers while working on the Abrolhos Islands during World War 2. He is married to the alluring Dolly (Essie Davis) who courts other men behind his back to relieve her boredom.

When Sam inherits the old #1 Cloud Street house he devises a plan to divide the house in two and take in lodgers as a source of income: The Lamb family.

And so two families with nothing in common live under one roof, watched on by Bob Crab (Kenton Pell), an indigenous man whose family were part of what became known as The Stolen Generation. He knows the secrets of the house.

In Winton’s story, the house is a character unto itself. The rambling, two-storey house heaves and creaks as both guardian and nemesis. It arguably serves as a metaphor for Australian society during the post-war period: those who would become enterprising and those whose greatest challenge is simply to survive; those who believe in faith and those who believe in fate.

All are driven by the importance of family.

Winton also allows for a magic-realism to enter this drama, where moments of fantasy are weaved seamlessly into naturalistic drama. A talking pig, a galah that defecates coins, clutching the stars in your hand …..none need explanation in this most extraordinary world.

The performances are superb. Kerry Fox as Oriel Lamb is magnetic, full of passion as a woman desperate to make the most of her circumstance. Geoff Morrell fits the colloquial Lester Lamb to a tee, playing the hapless husband who lacks enterprise. Steve Curry charms his way through the lively Sam Pickles while Essie Davis channels Hollywood-glamour as the painted-lady, Dolly Pickles.

In Part Two of the miniseries Hugo Johnstone-Burt is an absolute find as the teenage Fish Lamb, whilst Todd Lasance as his older brother looks destined for a feature film role. Emma Booth feels a little old to pass as Steve Curry’s daughter, but it doesn’t get in the way of her performance as the determined Rose Pickles. Narrator Ron Haddrick sparingly links together the frames, with his rumbling “voice of God” timbre.

But Tim Winton notwithstanding, the real star here is Director Matthew Saville (The King, We Can Be Heroes, The Secret Life of Us, The Surgeon, Noise), who has delivered his finest work to date with a grand canvas worthy of the work. He directs with an assured and imaginative hand. There is quiet awe in these scenes, lingering on an Australian landscape, trusting enough in his performers to sometimes emote without words, wrinkling humour underneath pathos, and giving due respect to a bygone era.

He is also matched by the striking photography of Mark Wareham, which captures the light of Western Australia beautifully. Production designer Herbert Pinter has created stunning scenes of 1940s Perth with an eye for detail that delivers authenticity. Composer Bryony Marks, editor Geoff Hitchins and costumes from Terri Lamera have all given this story the love it deserves.

Tim Winton wrote the screenplay with Ellen Fontana under the watch of producer Greg Haddrick. Phrases like the “shifty shadow” of fate evoke a period language. I haven’t read the novel to see how it compares, but you have to presume it is in good hands with its author.

Cloudstreet, co-produced by Brenda Pam and produced by Des Monaghan and Kim Vecera, is a landmark series from Screentime.

It is a return to the period miniseries we used to do so well -I was constantly reminded of the wonderful Water Under the Bridge with this piece.

Like Love My Way, this will help define the subscription television industry. With its $10m budget for 6.5 hrs, I’m not sure Free to Air’s bean-counters could have ever justified what has been delivered, let alone nurture it with the same patience.

The wait has been worth it.

Cloudstreet is world class.

Cloudstreet premieres 8:30pm Sunday on Showcase.

25 Comments »

  1. Carol July 25, 2011 at 4:05 pm -

    Watched this last weekend. My daughter taped (??) it for me as I don’t have Foxtel. This is my favourite book and I was a little aprehensive but knew Tim Winton had a hand in it so felt would be ok. Better than that. I know these people as if they were my family and the casting was superb. Kerrie Fox wow & Tod Lasance. What a journey he has made since Home & Away. The minute I saw the house I knew everything was going to be just fine. My only gripe is they left out the trip that Quick, Rose & Fish made together. This was a highlight of the book for me so would be interested in why Tim left it out. I was in tears at the end as I felt I had been part of something really special. Well done by all.

  2. Glebe June 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm -

    c’mon David – if this wasn’t an Australian drama it wouldn’t get close to Five stars.

    I love the fact that they’re trying to pull something like this off…but when you actually watch it, it’s slow and a little boring. Beautifully shot…yes (mind you the sea plane landing in the first episode was a ridiculous attempt at cgi) Five stars…umm not quite.

    what would you give Breaking Bad, Man Men, The Killing, The wire?? I’d say they’re the 5 star bench mark.

  3. Bec May 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm -

    That was a beautiful piece of writing David, what a joy to read. Well done, some of your best work!
    Oh, and Cloudstreet looks bloody amazing – the promo had me in tears, shame I don’t have Pay TV.

  4. begbie May 23, 2011 at 7:53 pm -

    Never read this book. Fantastic TV show, just fantastic.

  5. Barrett May 17, 2011 at 10:55 pm -

    Looking forward to watching this in HD – something that FTA seems incapable of doing these days.

    Pay TV rules….ok

  6. David Knox May 17, 2011 at 10:23 pm -

    Seems to be a bit of interest in what shows have received 5 stars around here. They are:
    The Eternity Man
    Damages
    Great Migrations
    Cloudstreet

  7. Geoff Field May 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm -

    Wow.
    Sounds amazing.
    Looks like I’ll be seeing it on DVD cause Showcase isn’t part of my package.
    I saw the stage show 10 years ago and was blown away, so I’m glad to hear the TV show is just as good !

  8. billy c May 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm -

    Looking forward to the DVD. If Foxtel have more original programming like this I will certainly consider subscribing.

  9. Marius May 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm -

    “Im sorry. Ive seen it and its slow and boring. I really wanted to like it but it sent me to sleep”

    PS I love Neighbours

  10. Gonzo May 17, 2011 at 4:30 pm -

    @Napdav i agree with you completely

  11. deedeedragons May 17, 2011 at 2:54 pm -

    Sad that most Australian won’t see it.

  12. Shelley May 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm -

    Such a shame they are refusing to show this on FTA

  13. David S. May 17, 2011 at 1:19 pm -

    I hope this comes out on iTunes PDQ.

  14. Secret Squïrrel May 17, 2011 at 1:18 pm -

    David, you bastard! Why’d you have to write this? I thought that I was prob going to miss out on something good but now I know for sure that I’ll be missing something great. I hate you.

  15. steve May 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm -

    Freeview can bring out another 10 digital channels. I won’t ever cancel my subscription to Foxtel due to programs like this.

    It’s refreshing to have drama, Australian drama, produced and given to the audience without the constant pressure of ‘winning’ a timeslot and being bombarded with advertising.

  16. pietro May 17, 2011 at 11:32 am -

    Is it to be shown by Showtime in the US?

  17. BLAIRBLAIR May 17, 2011 at 11:10 am -

    Im sorry. Ive seen it and its slow and boring. I really wanted to like it but it sent me to sleep

  18. s5000 May 17, 2011 at 11:06 am -

    What a beautiful review. Great read!

    Only makes my feet even itchier to see it!

  19. Stephen C May 17, 2011 at 11:05 am -

    can’t wait to see this!!!!!

    I hope showtime announce more programming as well to

  20. napdav May 17, 2011 at 11:00 am -

    I so want to see this but don’t have cable. It’ll have to wait for the BluRay. But isn’t this what the ABC should be doing? It’s certainly what the BBC does.

    Saville and Wareham are talented guys (as must be the rest of the team) and even though 10 million for 6.5 hours sounds like a lot – it isn’t compared to the likes of HBO etc. Not knowing the piece I’m assuming it’s not action – so 1.5 million for an hour show should make for nice TV.

    To be fair to the rest of the drama industry – 800k to 1.2 million for 60mins is the spread for Network drama. 350k to 550k for a half hour of upper end kid’s stuff. The reason why we get a lot of ‘talking heads’ as it’s cheaper to shoot dialogue than action. No matter what you think of the various shows – we get quite a lot out of what are very tight budgets……

    Cloudstreet also has the advantage of the thing most lacking in Oz drama – a story/script honed over years and distilled through a book, a stage play, and now a screenplay. The script is the cheapest part of making anything – yet it’s usually the least developed of all the parts. Start with a good script – populate it with great actors – and you’re more than halfway there.

  21. Mickche May 17, 2011 at 10:06 am -

    I think the only other 5-star review i saw was for The Eternity Man.
    Can’t wait for Cloudstreet

  22. Trix May 17, 2011 at 9:38 am -

    Excellent review, David, and totally deserved. This is going to change the landscape of what can be produced for television here in Australia. Very exciting!

  23. mobo May 17, 2011 at 9:24 am -

    Should I read the book first?

  24. Michael May 17, 2011 at 8:07 am -

    I’m just commenting the fact that you gave it 5 stars, don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen. It must be pretty good!

  25. Craig May 17, 2011 at 7:58 am -

    I thought it was longer 6 or 8 parts, but a quick wiki check and it’s 3x 2h. Can we assume it’s the best part of 120 minutes per week as Showcase doesn’t have ad breaks during the programs.

    FYI Showcase is also running a special this week ‘Adapting an Aust. Classic’ in the lead up to the first ep, check your guides.

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