It 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.