First Review: Underbelly

True life crime has always been a point of fascination for television drama producers. Blue Murder, The Society Murders, Through My Eyes: The Lindy Chamberlain Story, Murder in the Outback, My Husband My Killer, the list is endless.

So the idea of dramatising the Leadbelly book by John Silvester and Andrew Rule is an obvious choice. This is contemporary history rich in larger than life characters, blood feuds, passion and revenge. Under the reign of Eddie McGuire, Nine swooped on an opportunity for dynamite storytelling.

In the hands of Screentime’s Greg Haddrick (MDA, The Society Murders, Jessica) and Brenda Pam (Mary Bryant) they have delivered a comprehensive essay, charged with sinister performances and terrifying truths.

In filming this vast story that took place between 1995 and 2004, Nine has shot every scene on location. Many are actual locations where the story unfolded on the streets of Melbourne. From Chinatown to churches, Brunswick to Brighton, the realism is one of the show’s best attributes. With some courtcases still pending, a few names have been changed.

Underbelly opens with a rocking soundtrack and hand-held cameras. It is sporadically narrated by policewoman Jacqui James (Caroline Craig) who witnesses a party brawl between underworld boss Alphonse Gangitano (Vince Colosimo), also known as the ‘Prince of Lygon Street’, and an associate, Greg Workman (Liam Amor) who owes him money. James’ young cop partner Steve Owen (Rodger Corser) faces off against Gangitano.

“You know who you’re talking to?” asks Gangitano.

Backing down, a defiant Owen triggers a personal animosity that will resonate as the war unfolds. After he leaves, Gangitano gives Workman a piece of advice from John F. Kennedy. “Forgive your enemies but never forget their names,” he says.

With this, he blatantly shoots the Workman in the back, an act seen by two party girls.

Gangitano is swiftly shielded by his protective friend, Jason Moran (Les Hill).

The Moran brothers (Martin Sacks, Kevin Harrington), Mick Gatto (Simon Westaway) and the senior safecracker ‘The Munster’ (Gerard Kennedy) converge at their meeting place, a grandstand at the Carlton Football Club oval. There they plot to cover Gangitano’s tracks and silence the eye witnesses who have been placed in protective custody by police.

But the girls are fearful and take Gangitano’s “offer” of an all-expenses “holiday” overseas in lieu of testifying in court. And so begins a cat and mouse war with police of missing evidence and unwilling, and murdered, witnesses that will characterise this story for the next decade.

Colosimo is magnificent as Gangitano. His presence dominates scenes with Mafioso malevolence. Both family man and thug, he is depicted as a man driven by power and pride. He is violent, vulgar with a hint of Catholic guilt.

Les Hill is equally outstanding as Moran, a friend who will be challenged by disloyalty. This is a role that could be seen as a television comeback.

The cast is bolstered by a formidable roll-call including Caroline Gilmer, Robert Mammone, Frankie J. Holden, George Kapiniaris. In a labyrinthine plot that sees the story handed on baton-like many more names will follow (Alex Dimitriadis, Kat Stewart, Damian Walshe-Howling, Marcus Graham, Dan Wyllie, Madeleine West, John Brumpton).

At risk of being overwhelmed by the dark, testosterone-driven drama of the story, Underbelly’s only lighter moments come from female perspectives (wives, spouses and girlfriends) and from Gyton Grantley’s simplistic portrayal of Carl ‘Babyface’ Williams. He begins as a personal driver to Gangitano but will rise through the ranks of the underworld as the 13-part story unfolds.

The streetwise dialogue by writer Peter Gawler is taut, profane and arrogant. Tony Tilse’s direction, balancing individual perspectives in a large, Greek (or rather, Italian) tragedy is expert. Images of Gangitano walking across the bonnet of a police car illustrate so much with so little. This is our own Sopranos.

If there are any criticisms to be found with Underbelly, they are few.

One or two shots give away that period Melbourne was actually shot in 2007. And while watching these gangsters thrive on power with ballsy disdain, it was hard not to think of the behaviour of some television executives in recent history.

This aside, Underbelly looks set to be one of the highlights of the 2008 television year.

Don’t miss it.

Underbelly premieres in February on Nine.

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