Sisters of War

Australia used to have a love affair with the period miniseries / telemovie.

Against the Wind, Jessica, Vietnam, Water Under the Bridge, The Dismissal, Changi, 1915, The Dunera Boys and more.

It renews the romance with Sisters of War, ABC’s telemovie on the true life story of a group of nurses and nuns who were held captive by the Japanese in a tiny Catholic mission station Vunapope, on the island of New Britain in 1942.

Much of the telemovie is filmed on location, in Queensland, providing a constant, tropical backdrop to this drama. It’s hot, unforgiving yet lush at the same time. Vunapope is both heaven and hell, at any given time.

At the centre of the story are nun Sister Berenice (Claire van der Boom) and nurse Lorna Johnston (Sarah Snook). Each represents a bigger group of women taken prisoners by the Japanese.

Remarkably, Polish-born Bishop Leo Scharmach (Gerald Lepkowski) bluffed the Japanese into believing that he was a personal friend of Hitler and that the mission was Hitler’s property. It was an inspired idea that saved lives.

Matron Kay Parker (Susie Porter) stands up for the women against Japanese authorities. But there are times when some will be made examples of. Australian Idol singer Paulini Curuenavuli makes a strong debut in a supporting role as an islander nun.

The women are strong in spirit, but their weakness is their care for the wounded Australian soldiers they are attending. The Japanese exploit this for information and to exert authority.

While not on the level of The Pacific, some scene and themes are brutal and unforgiving.

Every time the women think they are going to be rescued by US planes, they are shot at in a bid to annhilate the Japanese enemy.

After six months of submission, Lorna and Sister Berenice were separated, with one sent to Japan and the other remaining an island prisoner.

The scenes in Japan are highly stylised, and less convincing. But they emphasise torture, starvation and a harrowing ordeal.

This is a well-made production capturing a little-known chapter of our war history. The themes are not dissimilar to 1997’s Paradise Road in which women were imprisoned in Sumatra during World War II. Adapted from the wartime diaries and interviews with Lorna Johnston, Sister Berenice and survivors, the best is saved for last.

Before the closing credits roll you will see the elderly two women still alive, and now life-long friends. Having seen their ordeal, seeing the two women alive in 2010 is a powerful image of their spirit and friendship.

Sisters of War airs 8:35pm Sunday on ABC1.

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