Nine and Foxtel projects are expected to screen early in 2015, timing with the 100th Anniversary. ABC’s ANZAC Girls benefits by screening first and by giving us a female perspective.
So often war is depicted from a male point of view, but writer Felicity Packard draws upon The Other ANZACs by Peter Rees, plus diaries, letter and photographs for this true-life dramatisation. It’s a point worth remembering when the story strays into melodrama on occasions in what is an otherwise handsome and laudable tale.
There were over 3,720 Australian and New Zealand nurses serving overseas during World War One. 56 were awarded the Royal Red Cross, 201 were awarded the Associate Red Cross but only seven were awarded Military Medals.
This ensemble piece centres around young Alice Ross-King (Georgia Flood) and her colleagues Elsie Cook (Laura Brent), Olive Haynes (Anna McGahan), and New Zealander Hilda Steele (Antonia Prebble).
Arriving in Port Said, Egypt, they are given stern instructions by Principal Matron Nellie Gould (Rhondda Findleton), assisted by Matron Grace Wilson (Caroline Craig). After the long sea journey they are eager to begin duties and new friendships are forming in oppressive conditions.
We are reminded the women must be single to serve in the forces, which results in plenty of lingering looks at the young soldiers who cross their paths. Alice takes an instant shine to Lieutenant Frank Smith (Thomas Cocquerel) but there will be other suitors to come. Elsie harbours a secret that sees her making out in a tent with Major Sydney Cook (Todd Lasance). Olive is the most knockabout of all the Aussie gals, in a role that contrasts Anna McGahan’s performance in House Husbands.
Matron Grace serves as mentor to the younger nurses and as a voice of reason before the dour Principal Matron Nellie Gould (why are senior matrons always so dour on television?).
The first episode works hard to emotionally establish our ensemble, with a heavy reliance on romantic storylines. In this context it is sometimes too languid. But by the second episode there is more focus on the theatre of war and the sheer work challenges the women faced without adequate supplies or facilities. Stretched to their limits, we see how the character within each responds.
Backrooms rather than battles are the focus of ANZAC Girls, no doubt a consideration for budgetary reasons as much as for the storytelling. The women become the heroes -or heroines- and the men are largely the victims, brought in on stretchers, which is probably a bit of an imbalance. But the heart is in the right place with a cast hitting all the right notes of emotion, desperation and youthful spirit.
Filmed in South Australia (is that the Flinders Ranges with CGI pyramids?), special mention must go to costume and production design for some impressive period reconstruction.
Georgia Flood steps up with this role, indicating she is an actress to watch. It’s hard not to see similarities between ANZAC Girls and Call the Midwife and ABC has honoured this with a Sunday night event timeslot.
For shining a light on these unsung heroes, it deserves to be rewarded.
ANZAC Girls airs 8:30pm Sundays on ABC.