I am so grateful I stuck with Wakefield.
If I’m honest I was undecided after the first episode…. not that it wasn’t well-performed, nor striking in its style and landscapes. But I just couldn’t work out what the hell psych nurse Nik (Rudi Dharmalingam) wanted.
Sure he’s the most efficient of the staff at the Wakefield psychiatric hospital, perched precariously on the edge of Katoomba’s Blue Mountains ridge. The young Indian-Australian can’t seem to shake a musical ‘earworm’ “Come on Eileen” from his head but his patients need him focussed as they deal with another day.
Episodes are divided into Chapters that tell the story from one individual’s perspective -whether patient or staff- beginning with corporate financier James (Dan Wyllie) who is trying to secure high-powered deals from inside his ward. There’s young mum Ivy (Megan Smart) recovering from post-natal depression; and talented sketcher Tessa (Bessie Holland) who is suffering from agoraphobia and unable to connect with her weary mother (Helen Mitchell).
Yet as Wakefield unravels over its 8 episodes it is clear that Nik has history that is weighing heavily on his mind. There are numerous flashbacks to his childhood in canefields, parents arguing, tears… all of which are juxtaposed against his sister’s upcoming Indian wedding.
Meanwhile the staff at the hospital all appear to have their own problems -a not flippant take on the notion of inmates running an asylum, perhaps. Acting Nursing Unit Manager Linda (Mandy McElhinney) is at risk of missing the top job, while Collette (Felicity Ward) is like a boat in search of a romantic harbour, psychiatrist Kareena (Geraldine Hakewill) finds herself constantly conflicted, and Pete (Sam Simmons) appears to hate his job altogether.
Kristen Dunphy’s script never takes the safe nor linear path in seeking to portray mental health, often rebounding on itself in some post-Rashomon circle. The whole series is like a jigsaw of mystery, emotion, sanity for the viewer to navigate. This makes the series a discerning choice for audiences…. if you’re looking for broad appeal TV, signposting its destinations and turning points, it isn’t this.
But along the way you will be moved by some extraordinary performances from the likes of Harriet Dyer, Ryan Corr, Colin Friels, Wayne Blair, Harry Greenwood, Victoria Haralabidou, Kim Gyngell. Mandy McElhinney’s passive aggressive Linda (who frankly, could have walked off the set of Wentworth) is the best work I’ve seen from her. Felicity Ward is a standout in a dramatic role.
But Rudi Dharmalingam (who has the Aussie accent down pat) is arresting, dynamic, sometimes smouldering, as the nurse trying to help his patients whilst dealing with deep-seated issues and a demanding family. Directors Jocelyn Moorhouse & Kim Mordant even inject song & dance into this bold work, with Dharmalingam forced to perfect tap dancing for his role. The collision of ideas and visuals is sometimes exquisite….
It’s hard to see how this will not win multiple nominations, for writing, direction, performances, cinematography. The cast is a shoo-in for Equity’s ensemble award (you heard it here first).
The crescendo of Wakefield is deeply affecting, visually striking, superbly performed.
Wakefield is one of the finest and most original local dramas produced in years.
Wakefield screens 8:30pm Sundays on ABC (all 8 episodes now on iview).