The Gloaming review – shades of Twin Peaks in fog-swamped crime drama
4 / 5 stars
Ewen Leslie and Emma Booth investigate a grisly murder in Stan’s moody and noirish new genre series
Every once in a while a film or television series comes around with an aesthetic so eye-watering it makes plaudits such as “evocative” or “painterly” seem manifestly inadequate. Occasionally – as is the case with Stan’s eight-part mystery-drama The Gloaming, from creator and writer Vicki Madden – the visual oomph of the production seems to manifest as a kind of viscous residue, sticking to your psyche the way a sweat patch clings to your armpit.
Take a bow, Marden Dean: the show’s gimlet-eyed cinematographer, who also shot Breath, Boys in the Trees and The Infinite Man. The Gloaming is the latest in an emerging trend of Tasmania-based productions that view the island state as a place of terrible beauty, located somewhere south of the mainland and west of hell – following on from Jennifer Kent’s period piece The Nightingale, Foxtel’s gothic drama Lambs of God, and another series helmed by Madden: the terrific, darkly ravishing 2016 disappearance thriller The Kettering Incident.
Like Kettering, The Gloaming is bathed in frosty moonlight and ensconced in fog and haze. It has a Scandi-noirish atmosphere and a plotline drawn from a more defined genre playbook: the police procedural thriller. A twisty narrative involving deaths and disappearances is led – as is customary – by a pair of good-looking detectives who discover the case they are working on Is Personal and may connect to a crime committed many years ago.
We see vision of events related to that crime in a surreal introductory sequence depicting young teenagers Jenny McGinty (Milly Alcock) and Alex O’Connell (Finn Ireland) venturing towards a big old creepy house, past a forest of tall, bony trees and a collection of grimy tombstones. The property’s occupant is less than thrilled to see them and fires a shotgun at Jenny at point-blank range. This moment is depicted in a way that obscures the face of the attacker and the impact of the bullet.
Alex grows up to be a police detective played by Ewan Leslie – delivering another highly effective, twitch-inducing performance following recent appearances in The Cry and Safe Harbour. Alex is directed to partner up with Molly, who is played by Emma Booth: a very commanding presence, here and in the icky 2017 horror-thriller Hounds of Love. The pair haven’t seen each other in a couple of decades and share some kind of a past – although, three episodes in (the first three eps form the extent of this review) it’s not clearly exactly what.
Molly is called in to inspect a corpse at a crime scene early in the first episode, in a creepy and surreal moment, like a David Lynch production, and, like Twin Peaks, involving a body found near water – in this instance, a very cinematic-looking waterfall in the background. This body has not been wrapped in plastic but wrapped in rather gnarlier barbed wire.
The significance of the barbed wire is one of several points of discussion. Many things are unclear, though it’s obvious that – if you’ll pardon the Ghostbustery parlance – there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, with potential links to occult practices. Grace Cochran (Rena Owen), leader of the local church community, looks more than a little suspect. And the mentally unhinged young man Freddie (Matt Testro) is a dark horse: forever one step away, it seems, from taking the story to very twisted places.
The “this time it’s personal” connections that make the case of heightened interest to Molly and Alex, as well as some stilted dialogue, occasionally give The Gloaming a whiff of all-too-familiar dramatic contrivance, antithetical to its otherwise thrilling air of surprise and intrigue. Given the show’s genre framework, you wouldn’t call it strikingly original, but it sure is striking: particularly as a work of atmospheria.
Does Madden write the appearance of mist into her scripts? Did she breathe down the necks of Dean and the directors (Michael Rymer, Greg McLean and Sian Davies), reminding them to fog up the lens? Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa extensively used wind machines, intensifying the environment and infusing his films with symbolic visuals: the winds of change, the winds of good and bad fortune, the winds signifying chaos and tumult. Madden is doing something similar with mist, here as in The Kettering Incident. Its menacing and mysterious qualities thicken up the frame, covering it with a kind of enigmatic, semi-translucent vapour.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens described a “steaming mist in all the hollows” as a force that “roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none.” He called it a “clammy and intensely cold mist” that “made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.”
Roaming forlornness, an evil spirit, an unwholesome sea: these feel like apt words to describe the brilliant brume of The Gloaming. Certainly better than “evocative” or “painterly”.