Devil’s Playground

2014-09-06_2332It is surely a brave group of creatives ambitious enough to revisit an iconic film like The Devil’s Playground (1976) as a contemporary miniseries. Perhaps buoyed by the success of Wentworth, Foxtel has undertaken this 6 part drama, produced by Matchbox Pictures. But this is no re-imagining -instead it is effectively a sequel. With the film now entrenched in the Australian cinema pantheon, much could have easily gone wrong with this project. Thankfully, it hasn’t.

It’s now 1988, 35 years after the events of the original 1950s story in a Melbourne Catholic seminary. Tom Allen, originally played as a 13 year old boy by Simon Burke, is now in his late 40s, as a Sydney psychiatrist. Burke, whose career was catapulted by Schepisi’s film, returns as Allen -also portrayed as a recent widower and father to two children.

At a nearby Catholic school a young boy has disappeared and Tom is close to his mother Alice (Anna Lise Phillips). While the local clergy, Father Marco (Andrew McFarlane) and Brother Paul (Leon Ford), offer religious support to the boy’s mother, it is schoolboy Elliot (Jarin Towney) whose silent suspicion offers the best hope to uncovering the truth.

In the upper echelons of the Sydney Diocese politics has impacted on Bishop Vincent Quaid (Don Hany), who is troubled by the changes brought about by Vatican II. Bishop John McNally (John Noble) may be older, but he subscribes to Rome’s doctrine and all that has afforded him position. Both are respectful, in their own ways, to the retiring Cardinal Neville (Jack Thompson).

The Church also engages with state politics, if somewhat contemptuously, personified here by local MP Margaret Wallace (Toni Collette).

But Devil’s Playground is seen through the eyes of Tom Allen, the sole surviving character from the original film, when Bishop Quaid invites him to become a counsellor of priests. As a practising Catholic, it is a request he finds hard to decline. With an unfolding mystery and challenges within his family life, Tom must juggle both personal and plot-driven dramas in this sequel. Burke, so deeply invested in this role, takes this on with confidence and sensitivity.

Don Hany as Bishop Quaid is outstanding as a man manoeuvering within the “dark forces” of the Church, not always able to restrain his passion. John Noble is simply enigmatic as Bishop McNally, exquisitely bringing poise and power to his role. Veteran actor Max Cullen also appears as a frail, elderly Bishop making the most of minimal scenes.

Toni Collette appears belatedly in the opening double episode premiere, but her Aussie vernacular adds colour to this dark tale (just whom has she based her politician on?).

Jarin Towney is also a significant voice in this ensemble, particularly given schoolboys were so pivotal to Schepisi’s original film. He carries this flame with grace beyond his years.

Devil’s Playground is unlikely to please Catholic devotees, given its themes of clergy abuse -only hinted at in the premiere- are set to unravel as narrative television drama. At the hands of writer Blake Ashford and director Rachel Ward, it is clear this project is set to expose all kinds of sinister corruption and pit them against questions of morality, faith and due diligence. Special mention must go to cinematographer Andrew Commis for replicating the colour palette of Schepisi’s film, drained here of bright hues.

Quite why a 1976 coming-of-age film has opted for a mystery / thriller isn’t entirely clear, in what is ultimately a major genre shift. Perhaps the crime involving a missing boy is deemed the ultimate form of abuse (I’m not quite sure why Foxtel has a predilection for putting children in peril ie. Top of the Lake, The Kettering Incident). The dramatic choices afforded to the role of the worried mother are also somewhat surprising, perhaps they hint at more elaborate storylines yet to unfold.

The sum of the parts is the tapestry here, ensuring Devil’s Playground is a powerful and engrossing chapter in the tale of Tom Allen. It marks another fine drama that gives subscription television an edge.

Devil’s Playground airs 8:30pm Tuesday on Showcase.

6 Comments:

  1. For all the advance acclaim, the first two episodes were pretty pedestrian. It took way too long to get going, the pace was sluggish, and much of the dialogue was clunky (and occasionally anachronistic). And Don Hany as a Bishop is a pretty big stretch.

  2. One thing that stood out to be was the format, what is it with some shows now using the ultra wide format so with 16:9 you still get black bars on the screen, I’ve notice this with a few shows out of the UK recently.

    Over all a good story, but hope it gets better.

  3. After all the hype I was very disappointed in this opening episode. This is an interesting idea in search of a cohesive story so they’ve turned it into a murder mystery. It is highly derivative of Broadchurch and Top of the Lake – but it lacks their original vision or even a cohesive controlling idea. What is it really about? Why all the portentous looks? What a missed opportunity to explore the Catholic Church at this time. The script is all over the place as it searches for a central through line, the directing is pedestrian and the performances are tonally inconsistent.

  4. The cast of this show is very strong but the roles just dont seem to fit right. I dont think Simon is in the right role and I am not sure why ‘all’ the priests seem to look sinister or political. Strangely enough the portrayal of what seems like a mixed bunch of priests with different ages and outlook is spot on for this period but the church doesnt sell out for money hand outs from a state govt !
    Not sure if we need to know that the church protects it own, thats not new, but blackmail seems to the central theme and this does not seem to fit the time as no was listening then to victim complaints !

  5. David, really astute point about three of their commissioned crime dramas involving crimes against kids. And it’s kind of disappointing that Foxtel isn’t distinguishing itself from the ABC and staying away from crime/thriller anyway. Pretty conservative stuff in the scheme of things.

  6. Silly to use the same title as the film which was a piece of its time (both the story setting and the year filmed)-seems like it’s trying to ride the coat tails when the story should be more than strong enough to stand as a work by itself given the ongoing revelations of the last 35 years.

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