Nine delivers a commanding, violent drama that turns history into Event television.
First announced by Nine in 2012, it is finally upon us at the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC assault, and will be one of several small screen depictions of an event that defines the spirit of the nation.
Yes, Gallipoli is a revered event that demands deifying. If you’re approaching it as Drama, you’d better throw everything at it. Nine’s 8 part drama does just that with an expansive male cast, hundreds of costumes, props and locations that recreate the unique Turkish landscape, with excellent conviction.
The challenge is also to revisit a saga so memorably told by Peter Weir’s 1981 film and to distinguish between fact and myth.
Writer Christopher Lee bases his screenplay on Les Carlyon’s 2003 best-seller of the same name. The central character is young Thomas ‘Tolly’ Johnson (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The miniseries begins with him about to land on the beach with his brother, Bevan (Harry Greenwood). Both doing their bit for their country, they have no idea what lays ahead.
“What did I know about war? I was 17 years old,” he reflects.
“The king, the empire, doing the right thing seemed a long way off.”
Most of his troop are mere boys too. They land on an isolated beach before a mountainous hill and as the bodies begin to fall it’s almost like a scene from Saving Private Ryan. Yet we are told it wasn’t on the beach that the boys were annihilated, but deep in the ravines as they tried to make their way to the enemy on top.
“This was bastard country. Not the sort of place a country would invade on purpose.”
Overseeing the troops is Captain Eric Taylor (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) with Sergeant Harry Perceval (Matt Nable). Despite their best attempts at taking the hill, the Turks beat them down. In the opening two hours there are several assaults that rise and fall rather like an orchestral suite. Director Glendyn Ivin adopts a languid pace to this marathon battle but the battle scenes are necessarily violent and bloody. Our hero faces the moment of truth of turning from teenage boy to killer, like a rite of passage.
Pleasingly, we are also privy to the Turkish perspective, albeit via a lot less screen time.
“I’m not commanding you to attack, I’m commanding you to die,” says one.
Tolly’s story is interjected with flashbacks of home life. His mother (Justine Clarke) is furious he lied about his age to enlist, something of a wartime cliche. Ashleigh Cummings plays the girl back home -but it’s complicated.
There are also senior military Brits aboard the Queen Elizabeth with General Ian Hamilton (John Bach) commanding the war room, and Aussie command at Ari Burnu. This chapter is familiar territory as the empire plots a perilous fate for our ANZACs.
From a production perspective the attention to detail is outstanding. It’s hard to find fault with the landscape, while the period costumes and armoury bring authenticity to the story. Producers John Edwards, Imogen Banks and Robert Connolly have recreated the era rather wonderfully, under the hand of Production Designer Josephine Ford.
Kodi Smit-McPhee underplays the young man in the theatre of war with great confidence, and Ivin allows the piece to breathe with plenty of space between the text. While the opening focuses on the beach landing, I am also keen to learn more about other characters as a television narrative. So far there isn’t much about what’s going on back home.
As it stands Gallipoli is a commanding and respectful execution, handsomely-produced by a team with great passion. It deserves to stand tall as Event television and will probably propel more than a few young actors to fruitful careers, with a few awards along the way.
2015 is looking like a top year for local drama. Gallipoli is one of the best dramas Nine has done in ages.
9pm Monday February 9 on Nine.