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.