The Secret River

A spectacular setting and a story steeped in blood makes ABC's miniseries compelling television.


With its spectacular setting on the Hawkesbury River, one could happily turn down the sound on The Secret River and enjoy the landscape scenery: the river, the bush, aerial shots -this is picture postcard stuff.

But then you would be missing the story, crafted by writer Kate Grenville in her book of the same name and adapted here by the formidable duo of Jan Sardi (Shine, Love’s Brother, Mao’s Last Dancer) and Mac Gudgeon (Waterfront, The Petrov Affair, Killing Time). It is a story that strikes at the heart of our collective conscience: the dispossession of land from Indigenous Australians by early settlers.

While Part I is predominantly set-up, Part II is packs a punch.

British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen as convict William Thornhill arrives in penal New South Wales and is lucky enough to be assigned to his wife, free settler Sal (Sarah Snook). With their two sons and baby, the family struggles with the harsh surrounds: a rundown, makeshift town, drunkards, corporal punishment, snakes. “It’s no place for kids to be growing up.”

Will works hard as an oarsman transporting supplies on Sydney Harbour and befriending ex-waterman turned free settler Thomas Blackwood (Lachy Hulme). After six years he earns his emancipation which is all the freedom he needs to pursue Blackwood’s idea of a relocation up the Hawkesbury River. There, a new beginning may await them, if they are prepared to leave civilisation behind.

On his first visit to the Hawkesbury, Will is captivated by the Australian setting, despite odd encounters with naked oyster farmer Smasher Sullivan (Tim Minchin) and the haunting, distant fires of Aboriginal tribes. Blackwood assures, it is possible to co-exist. “Give a little, take a little, otherwise you’re dead as a flea,” he advises.

Will convinces Sal to a relocate the family to a parcel of land on the river under a 5 year plan, although she hopes to return the family to London.

“It’s like something out of a dream, Sal,” he tells her.

As he claims the land “before some other bugger does,” Will encounters local Aboriginals passing through. These are curious, if guarded exchanges by both although the children will be far more unfiltered in their expression. As he builds his farm through grit and determination, he will find his sense of ownership challenged in the extreme.

Whilst these characters are fictitious they serve as a microcosm of a larger Australian history, and one that is steeped in blood and shame. Part II of Secret River is a powderkeg of emotion and brutality that makes it unmissable television.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen is outstanding as an outsider coming to grips with his new world. Protective but fair-minded, he is pushed to the limits as a family man. Sarah Snook delivers another fierce performance as a woman who speaks her mind and shows flashes of reconciliation. On occasions I missed some words of dialogue due to their accuracy with accents, notably when under duress.

Meanwhile Lachy Hulme adds gravitas as a mediator between two cultures. Trevor Jamieson as Indigenous elder Greybeard achieves so much with so little dialogue whilst Tim Minchin is suitably unlikeable as the wild, anarchic villain of the story, in all his nakedness. Other roles are played by Sam Johnson,  Genevieve Lemon and Rhys Muldoon.

Yet the Hawkesbury River is an allegory of itself: vast, deep, unforgiving. It is evocatively captured by cinematographer Bruce Young, including with drones, and matched with a score by Burkhard Dallwitz.

Secret River is a complex, challenging tale for us as an audience. Part-action, part-social commentary, it has echoes of the colonial miniseries Australia used to produce in the 1970s and -hands down- it’s also the best thing Daina Reid has ever directed. Hold on for Part II.

The Secret River airs 8:30pm Sunday June 14 and 21 on ABC.

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