June 13, 2015 The Weekend Australian, Graeme Blundell, First Watch
Seven years in the making, the television adaptation of Kate Grenville’s best selling and highly celebrated colonial-era “first- contact” novel The Secret River has arrived, and does it full justice. It’s an epic tragedy in which a good man is compelled by forces he cannot control to participate in a crime in which terrible things happen. The tragedy is the inevitable result of what Grenville calls the “total misunderstanding and mutual lack of comprehension, particularly regarding relationship to land”, between the Aboriginal people and the early settlers.
The Booker-nominated novel has been adapted into this seriously good television miniseries by two of Australia’s most talented screenwriters, Jan Sardi (Oscar nominated for Shine) and Mac Gudgeon (Killing Time), and directed by the accomplished Daina Reid (Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo) across two enthralling episodes. It’s a searching exploration of character and the shadow cast by the fear, violence and the individual isolation of the early settlers.
It will leave you moved, if uncomfortable, and like producer Stephen Luby, you might find an urgency to tell the story to as many people as possible if they don’t see it. “I wanted others to experience the insight and empathy that it had evoked in me,” he says of reading the novel in 2006. “An illumination not of historical facts and social issues, but into the profound feelings and pressure faced by all ‘the players’, both indigenous and white, in the early days of European settlement in this country, and which still e choes among us today.”
Beginning in 1805, it follows poverty-stricken Thames waterman William Thornhill (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who begins a life sentence in the penal colony of NSW assigned to his brave if obdurate wife, Sal (Sarah Snook). He finds work as an oarsman on Sydney Harbour while Sal establishes a rum stall, eking out a living in grog, the true currency of the colony.
Australia is no fair princess of a place but born and bred as an ill-favoured by- blow of the squalor and criminality of 18th-century industrial England and the poverty of Ireland. It’s a system dominated by the savagery of the lash, brutalising the community of officers, clergy, officials and settlers, and life for Will and Sal begins as a barren jail in a harsh, strange land.
Six years later, Will is pardoned and as an “emancipist” (a convict given an absolute or conditional pardon, or whose sentence had expired and who could then could own land and assert themselves in the same way as the free) becomes entranced with the idea of actually owning something for himself and his family. For him Australia becomes a miraculous home of great expectations; Sal, though, dreams only of a return to London.
Discovering the rock-and-forest-hidden mouth to the secret river of the title (the Hawkesbury in fact, its course hidden from the first explorers) in the company of another ex-waterman, the soft-voiced bear of a man Thomas Blackwood (Lachy Hulme), he is entranced with the possibility of owning land of his own. He spies a plot he calls Thornhill’s Point, turning to the land to stake a claim for equality in the emerging new social order.
But after the family has sailed north from Sydney, it’s clear that shaping the environment, changing the face of the land, is fraught with difficulties. His attempts to cajole the local Aboriginal people, the Dharug, are clumsy and he seems incapable of understanding how whites might live with blacks. “If you take a little, you have to give a little,” his friend Blackwood constantly impresses upon him. He is equally uncomfortable with the divisive racism of the other settlers along the river.
The production is distinguished by an almost musical interweaving of themes, carried by Burkhard Dallwitz’s great score, all strings, piano, flutes and whistles. It’s as though Reid and her writers have refused to pedestrianly transpose whatever was transposable from the novel but have found daring cinematic equivalents. Bruce Young’s photography is a luscious scenic tapestry of muted colour and light, often verging on the abstract. His cameras capture both the hollowness and openness of space, the oppressive immovableness of the landscape, as well as the illusion of freedom offered by the river.
Reid and her estimable collaborators (the production design of the distinguished veteran Herbert Pinter is especially impressive) gets the spell of the bush just right, that matrix of sentiments and ideals, that almost religious mystique that would in time become a symbol of a distinctive national character.
The struggle with the recalcitrant land has rarely been dramatised with such resonance: the loneliness of bush life and the way the early settlers who came to change and subdue the land were themselves changed by it in the end, and compelled to submit to its demands.
And the sense of the Aborigine as spiritual superior is palpable through the series, majestically conveyed in the mesmerising performance of Trevor Jamieson as Gumang, or Grey Beard, the most senior elder of the Dharug tribe, all meaning invested in sacred land. All the performances are splendid. Jackson- Cohen’s Will is a man of shy, courteous modesty and he allows us to maintain our empathy for him even when we know of the heinous events that must unfold around him. Snook is an inspired actress; she can turn her face into a dozen different ones: beautiful, pain-riddled, ethereal and earth-motherish.
Hulme flaunts his virtuosity once more with his Blackwood, an enigmatic and surprising figure who has found redemption in a new land, a performance of muted sadness and grace.
And the writer and musician Tim Minchin is brilliant as the bitter and vengeful Smasher Sullivan, driven by his profound hatred of the Hawkesbury Aborigines, wonderfully and disturbingly malevolent. I was reminded of something Mark Twain said about this country, that it does not read like history but like the most beautiful lies: “It is full of surprises, adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true; they all happened.”
Television previews: The Secret River transcends novel
June 3, 2015 SMH Melinda Houston TV critic
THE SECRET RIVER
New series ★★★★☆ (4.5 out of 5 stars)
Sunday, June 14, 8.30pm, ABC
It has been a long time since Australian television has attempted a big Australian origins story, but it's been worth the wait. It's also one of those cases (like The Slap) where the television adaptation manages to transcend what was already fabulous source material. Things start out ugly – as they do in Kate Grenville's novel – but one of the really lovely things about the screen version is its terrific light and shade. The hardships of first settlement are certainly powerfully evoked, but they're not dwelt on. And we get an equally visceral sense of its excitement and promise. Some scenes in this first instalment (I'm sure not by accident) are straight from the Heidelberg School, as much art as they are television. Indeed, the production values generally are superb. But like everything here, they're also perfectly balanced, never overwhelming or distracting from the story. Then there's the cast. There are certainly plenty of recognisable names but it's the intelligence of the casting that impresses. It's not about pretty faces or marquee names. Every actor absolutely fits the character: Sarah Snook's Sal, positively alight with energy; Trevor Jamieson's statesmanlike Greybeard; the little-known Oliver Jackson-Cohen, passionate and vulnerable as Will; and of course Tim Minchin's mischievously psychopathic Smasher. (And don't worry, Tim. We don't get to see your willy.) Perhaps what's most satisfying, though, is the way all these elements are brought together. Translating a rich, detailed novel – where the writing is as important as the story – is a slightly frightening task but everyone here has paid as much attention to their part in the process as Grenville has to her prose. The result is something that's not strictly factual – but that's an advantage. You're never wondering which bits are "true". Instead we have something that convincingly captures the reality of the period with nuance, a clear-eyed intelligence, and real emotional depth.
☆☆☆☆☆ (4.5 out of 5 stars)
June 11th, 2015 By David Knox
With its spectacular setting on the Hawkesbury River, one could happily turn down the sound on The Secret River and enjoy the landscape scenery: the river, the bush, aerial shots -this is picture postcard stuff.
But then you would be missing the story, crafted by writer Kate Grenville in her book of the same name and adapted here by the formidable duo of Jan Sardi (Shine, Love’s Brother, Mao’s Last Dancer) and Mac Gudgeon (Waterfront, The Petrov Affair, Killing Time). It is a story that strikes at the heart of our collective conscience: the dispossession of land from Indigenous Australians by early settlers.
While Part I is predominantly set-up, Part II is packs a punch.
British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen as convict William Thornhill arrives in penal New South Wales and is lucky enough to be assigned to his wife, free settler Sal (Sarah Snook). With their two sons and baby, the family struggles with the harsh surrounds: a rundown, makeshift town, drunkards, corporal punishment, snakes. “It’s no place for kids to be growing up.”
Will works hard as an oarsman transporting supplies on Sydney Harbour and befriending ex-waterman turned free settler Thomas Blackwood (Lachy Hulme). After six years he earns his emancipation which is all the freedom he needs to pursue Blackwood’s idea of a relocation up the Hawkesbury River. There, a new beginning may await them, if they are prepared to leave civilisation behind.
On his first visit to the Hawkesbury, Will is captivated by the Australian setting, despite odd encounters with naked oyster farmer Smasher Sullivan (Tim Minchin) and the haunting, distant fires of Aboriginal tribes. Blackwood assures, it is possible to co-exist. “Give a little, take a little, otherwise you’re dead as a flea,” he advises.
Will convinces Sal to a relocate the family to a parcel of land on the river under a 5 year plan, although she hopes to return the family to London.
“It’s like something out of a dream, Sal,” he tells her.
As he claims the land “before some other bugger does,” Will encounters local Aboriginals passing through. These are curious, if guarded exchanges by both although the children will be far more unfiltered in their expression. As he builds his farm through grit and determination, he will find his sense of ownership challenged in the extreme.
Whilst these characters are fictitious they serve as a microcosm of a larger Australian history, and one that is steeped in blood and shame. Part II of Secret River is a powderkeg of emotion and brutality that makes it unmissable television.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen is outstanding as an outsider coming to grips with his new world. Protective but fair-minded, he is pushed to the limits as a family man. Sarah Snook delivers another fierce performance as a woman who speaks her mind and shows flashes of reconciliation. On occasions I missed some words of dialogue due to their accuracy with accents, notably when under duress.
Meanwhile Lachy Hulme adds gravitas as a mediator between two cultures. Trevor Jamieson as Indigenous elder Greybeard achieves so much with so little dialogue whilst Tim Minchin is suitably unlikeable as the wild, anarchic villain of the story, in all his nakedness. Other roles are played by Sam Johnson, Genevieve Lemon and Rhys Muldoon.
Yet the Hawkesbury River is an allegory of itself: vast, deep, unforgiving. It is evocatively captured by cinematographer Bruce Young, including with drones, and matched with a score by Burkhard Dallwitz.
Secret River is a complex, challenging tale for us as an audience. Part-action, part-social commentary, it has echoes of the colonial miniseries Australia used to produce in the 1970s and -hands down- it’s also the best thing Daina Reid has ever directed. Hold on for Part II.
The Secret River airs 8:30pm Sunday June 14 and 21 on ABC.