The cast of Mystery Road alone is enough to warrant attention: Aaron Pedersen, Judy Davis, Colin Friels, Deborah Mailman, Anthony Hayes, Wayne Blair, Ernie Dingo, John Waters, Kris McQuade, Madeleine Madden, Aaron McGrath, Tasma Walton and Meyne Wyatt.
Some of Australia’s most acclaimed Indigenous performers are invested in this new 6 part drama from ABC because its pedigree includes creator and filmmaker Ivan Sen.
Sen’s previous two movies, Mystery Road and Goldstone, centre around Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), both met with critical acclaim.
For the miniseries edition, directed by Rachel Perkins, Jay has moved from Winton, Queensland, to the fictional town of Patterson (filmed in WA’s East Kimberley region).
Jay has been summoned by local police sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) to assist with a missing persons case, following the discovery of an abandoned truck on an outback cattle station. But his abrasive, singular style quickly puts him offside with James as they begin to quiz the locals, and James is convinced she knows this town better than most.
Cattle station owner Tony Ballantyne (Colin Friels) offers fleeting co-operation, more concerned with managing his 250,000 acre property, while Snr. Constable Ryan Muller (Anthony Hayes) fumbles his way through basic police assistance.
Meanwhile Jay’s teen daughter Crystal (Madeleine Madden) arrives unexpectedly, escaping problems at home with mother Mary (Tasma Walton). It doesn’t take her long to find trouble and make enemies. Deborah Mailman plays Kerry, the mother of missing Indigenous boy Marley (Aaron McGrath) and there is a long list of furtive locals telling little about what they know, including local barmaid Shevorne (Tasia Zalar).
But it’s clear this town has many secrets.
Despite the expansive cast, the character of Jay Swan offers a clear through-line into the narrative. As the outsider looking in, we learn how the jigsaw pieces fit in this very rich puzzle.
Watching Pedersen and Davis, whose role is worlds apart from her last screen role as Feud‘s Hedda Hopper, is a joy. Pedersen fits the strong, silent Jay to a tee, while Davis, if sporting a somewhat-distracting china doll haircut, brings all her nuance. The real pleasure is in watching the tug-of-war between the two, sometimes in subtext and sometimes in awkward humour.
Anthony Hayes is pitch perfect as a sad sack cop, without over-egging it, while Madeleine Madden again proves she is a star on the rise. Episode 2 sees Wayne Blair bring another sullen layer to the story. The late Jessica Falkholt also has a cameo as a European backpacker.
But no review of this fine work would be complete without acknowledging the landscape and vistas, captured beautifully by Director of Photography Mark Wareham ACS. The land is dry and unforgiving, but there are large Baobab trees, cockatoo flocks and drone-shots of cattle musters that look like moving art. These are contrasted by the stark, mostly bereft living conditions for the local Indigenous community.
Rachel Perkins brings a slow-burn Scandinavian style to the piece, but it is punctuated by a rock & roll and bluegrass soundtrack, and the outback light helps to avoid it becoming too brooding.
Mystery Road reminds us that the land and uniquely cultural experiences are where our voice is best served. Highly recommended.
Double episode 8:30pm Sunday (binge series on iview thereafter).