It’s a brave creative team to tackle an Australian classic and TV has two of them coming up: Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wake in Fright.
Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake in Fright frequently and justifiably makes critics’ lists of top Australian films. It is a harrowing descent into madness, with a captivating performance by British actor Gary Bond as schoolteacher John Grant.
Writer Stephen M. Irwin (Secrets and Lies, Harrow, Tidelands, Australia Day) and Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, The Principal, Australia Day) turn to Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel to relocate the story into 2017 as a 2 part miniseries. That has required some key creative differences that will challenge film buffs…
Sean Keenan, enjoying a bumper year of roles, is outback teacher John Grant who attempts to head home to Sydney when he is inadvertently detoured into Bundanyabba (aka “the Yabba”) and a parade of characters who will mess with his head.
They include David Wenham as Sergeant Jock Crawford, Gary Sweet as Tim Hynes, Alex Dimitriades as eccentric (to put it nicely) Doc Tydon plus roles from Caren Pistorious and Robyn Malcolm.
“Best little town on earth. Once you’ve been to the Yabba you never want to leave,” Grant is ominously told.
But the Yabba involves endless pints of beer, Two-Up, losing money and becoming obliged to monstrous locals and self-centred miscreants. Unable to find the means to leave, Grant sinks deeper and deeper into a blur of alcohol, drugs, and violent threats, all the while losing a grip on reality.
Yet some of the changes bothered me, including that Keenan’s Grant is an Australian, not British, teacher. This denies us both the fish-out-of-water scenario and, more significantly, the hero’s view of these strange Australian outback people. As an Aussie Grant wouldn’t be a complete stranger to Two-Up (as depicted here), and the concept of mateship and beer as the great leveller, would hardly be foreign. I was less convinced of his submissiveness than the polite Brit.
Directorially there is a heavy-handed approach to the locals as menacing, manipulative and two-sided. The original film saw the locals bend over backwards to befriend Grant, with such benevolence as to disguising their true nature. They laughed, they drank, they slapped you on the back and heaven help you if you didn’t return in kind. This was its true terror and a chilling statement on who we are. Here I get the feeling we are one truckstop away from a genre where a traveller has taken a wrong turn on the highway.
There are also flashbacks to Grant’s Sydney girlfriend, gleaming cars that have seemingly never hit red dirt, leering shots of a naked Keenan, and a flat cliffhanger to end Part I (disclaimer: I’ve only seen Part I, so I can’t comment on the roo cull becoming a pig massacre). One scene recreated with Caren Pistorious was ludicrously staged in its new environment. Wenham’s Sgt. Crawford is not a patch on the colloquial, terrifying Chips Rafferty.
But it’s not all bad. Stenders has avoided turning this into an outback road movie, resisting backpacker murders and crocs. It remains a psychological essay and a portrait of a destroyed soul.
Keenan is the best thing about this new version, never over-playing his part and proving yet again he is an actor to watch. Alex Dimiatrides, who turns a scene originally implied by Donald Pleasance into a reality, I think works well for a contemporary audience. The sequence will probably leave people talking. The Two-Up scene retains the spirit of the original, and thankfully recreates an iconic shot.
I’m aware I am making multiple parallels to the original film -but such are the risks of encroaching upon a masterful work. That said, if you’ve never seen Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film then this is a good entry point to Kenneth Cook’s story.
Ultimately that’s where TEN is pitching this, with a little help from the Yabba.
Wake in Fright screens 8:30pm Sunday October 8th & 15th on TEN.