It’s encouraging to see ABC broaden its genres in Drama. After last year’s paranormal series Glitch this week it will launch Cleverman, where Indigenous themes meet with supernatural and a dash of action.
Produced by Goalpost Pictures and NZ’s Pukeko Pictures for both ABC and Sundance TV it is worlds apart from period whodunnits, legal dramas and even domestic Indigenous sagas.
The setting is the near future in Sydney where a walled Zone houses outcasts of “hairypeople.” They are an Aboriginal tribe, covered in hair, and capable of extra-human strength. The hairypeople have been walking amongst us for 80,000 years but Minister for Immigration & Border Protection Geoff Matthews (Andrew McFarlane) keeps them segregated in a ghetto train station that is part Fight Club and part Mad Max.
But those Indigenous who are not “hairypeople” live outside the Zone, including young bar manager Koen West (Hunter Lochard-Page) who smuggles families out of the zone with friend Blair (Ryan Corr). But Koen also turns them in to the Containment Authority for a reward resulting in a raid filmed by TV journo Belinda Frosche (Leanna Walsman). What becomes a bungled raid sees a young Indigenous child killed, which media mogul Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen) threatens to broadcast.
Also in the mix of this huge ensemble are Koen’s brother and renegade hairypeople leader Waruu West (Rob Collins), doctor Charlotte Cleary (Frances O’Connor), Aunty Linda (Deborah Mailman) and elder Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) who as current Cleverman possesses powers that link back to The Dreaming.
There are also other supporting players representing tribal, authority, media and family of Koen. And it is poster boy Koen who is the central character, a young man conflicted by his placement and torn between past, present, black and white cultures.
The link between Koen and Uncle Jimmy, portrayed in a captivating performance from Jack Charles, is one of Cleverman‘s more focussed relationships.
When Uncle Jimmy hands the reluctant Koen a tribal club, known as a nulla nulla he tells him, “Time you decided which tribe you belong to. I’ll be watching.”
It’s impossible to ignore the metaphors of stolen generation and displaced refugees in the story by Michael Miller & Jon Bell, based on a concept by Ryan Griffen. Fusing Dreamtime legends with supernatural (and even a dash of horror) is a fresh take.
The cast is extensive, with supporting players including Stef Dawson, Rarriwuy Hick, Tony Briggs, Tysan Towney, Tasma Walton, Adam Briggs, Lynette Curran and an opening episode even featuring cameos by Marcus Graham, Miranda Tapsell, Rahel Romain, Sam Parsonson and Benson Jack Anthony. Keeping track of all the moving parts is hard work and I can’t help but feel it would have been an easier way into the story to stick more with Koen’s viewpoint.
As Koen, Hunter Page-Lochard is a bright find. He is required to carry both emotional and action scenes that are usually more at home on the big screen, than small. Rob Collins, as his rival brother, is also a stand-out. Ryan Corr is always solid and I must make special mention of character actress Lynette Curran, totally holding her own in a genre usually the domain of younger performers.
The production design (Jo Ford & Rob Wood), and hair and makeup (Kath Brown) bring much to this ambitious piece, directed by Wayne Blair.
But there can be risks in ‘over-hyping’ a show too. While Cleverman is to be applauded for its bold moves, including an extensive Indigenous cast, its elaborate universe will challenge. I also suspect it may find more success abroad than here, where viewers won’t be identifying Sydney locations passed off as future sets, and where it will likely be viewed with a blank slate.
Fingers crossed this does well for ABC. They’ve certainly gone in boots and all.
Cleverman premieres 9:30pm Thursday on ABC.